“Keep a close watch out for crocs,” advised my husband, Nick, as he left me to finish rinsing our laundry while he ferried a dinghy load of freshwater-filled jerry jugs out to Yawarra II, our 44-foot converted trawler. We'd seen seven crocodiles close by our boat earlier that morning, so his warning was unnecessary. I was definitely on guard! I couldn't help thinking, though, that it's not often that doing the laundry could be considered a dangerous activity. But in the remote Kimberley region of Western Australia, it definitely could be life threatening.
We had cruised for two years on the east Australian coast without having to worry about water supplies.Yawarra II's huge roof and her 400-gallon water tank capacity meant we had always caught and stored enough rain water for our needs. Cruising in the Kimberley during the dry season, we had not a spit of rain for months, forcing us to cart water and do laundry ashore. Unfortunately, any stream that is conveniently located for this purpose is also well within reach of crocodiles.
Staying submerged as they approach, these enormous reptiles launch themselves out of the water at any unwary prey lingering near the water's edge, seizing them in their massive jaws, and by using their powerful tails, roll their victims into the water to drown them.
Our first too-close encounter with a “croc” (as they are known in Australia) occurred when approaching the shore in our dinghy in the King George River. Looking up at the gorge ahead to assess whether I, with my fear of heights, could climb it, we were not paying enough attention to our water level surroundings. As the bow of our dinghy touched the rocky shore, we heard a loud splash only a few yards away. Horrified, we looked in the direction of the splash to see a large crocodile that had been dozing on a nearby rock disappearing into the water close by. I didn't stick around to see if he'd return, but instead, leapt ashore and climbed rapidly up and over the boulders until I was sure I was high enough to be out of danger. After that experience our mantra when out in the dinghy was, “Watch out for crocs on rocks!”
Later that day we met a crew member of one of the few small tourist boats that cruise the Kimberley.
“Oh you've got to watch that croc,” he laconically commented when we told him about our scare. “He hangs out near the waterfall there. A couple of years ago a few of the younger passengers and I were climbing down the rope ladder beside the falls when one of the guys suggested that we jump from there since the dinghy was nearby. Well, just as we were all getting up the courage to jump in, one of the guy's sandals came off and fell into the water. Within seconds the croc was there, checking out the sandal. We were bloody glad we hadn't jumped!”
They obviously hadn't heeded the story of Ginger Meadows, a young American woman who was taken by a crocodile in the 1980s when attempting to swim a few yards from the base of the Kings Cascade Waterfall in the Prince Regent River to her dinghy. We certainly kept Ginger's sad fate in mind when attempting to return to our dinghy following a few hours of exploration ashore, we found that the tide had risen so much (this was an area of 30-foot tides) that we could no longer access it. Even though we knew we would have to wait another three hours at least for the tide to fall enough to allow access, we decided that the only other option of swimming 20 to 30 yards across a small tidal pool was not a risk we wanted to take.
We worried some more, especially as our back deck is less than 3 feet above water level, when we thought about the fact that crocs can and do propel themselves out of the water to quite a height. We had witnessed this first hand when two large males engaged in a territorial dispute way too close to Yawarra II. The two monsters, locked belly to belly in mortal combat, launched themselves vertically out of the river with only the tips of their powerful tails touching the surface of the water.
We were not reassured when Ray on the catamaran Dog on Cat later told us that one big croc had tried to attack his wind generator, which, mounted on a pole on his stern, was about 12 feet off the water. Now that particular brand of wind generator can be noisy, so we really couldn't blame the croc for wanting to do away with it; however, it was pretty disturbing to think that he obviously thought he could reach it!
After several months of cruising in crocodile country I grew, if not exactly used to them being around, at least not constantly terrified. So long as they kept at a reasonable distance and swam away and not towardthe dinghy, I could cope. Their aggressive behavior in a couple of areas forced us to leave earlier than planned. We termed it “being monstered by crocs.”
In the aptly named Porosus (Latin for crocodile) Creek, a 10–12-foot crocodile hung around all morning keeping what we deemed a “reasonable” distance. Early in the afternoon, Nick tossed a bucket of dirty water over the stern. Immediately, the crocodile powered rapidly toward us, stopping a mere yard or two away. Perhaps he was hoping Nick had tossed over a fish carcass and he'd get a free feed. From then on until after dusk he stayed within a few yards of our boat, occasionally approaching so close I swear that his nose must have been touching our stern. His eyes never left us, any small movement aboard resulting in a closer approach. Every so often he'd submerge for a while only to re-appear with eyes trained expectantly in our direction.
As this occurred in an area frequented by tourist boats we had to wonder if their crews deliberately fed the crocodiles so that their passengers could get memorable photos. This is all well and good from the high and safe vantage point of their decks, but not so great when in a normal-sized cruising boat with decks close to water level. Goodness knows what we'd do if a crocodile landed on our back deck. Such close proximity meant that we also got some fantastic photos of these monsters—though I'd have been happier if I had needed to use the zoom function of my camera to get them!
MAJESTIC AND REMOTE
Our cruise in the Kimberley will be memorable not only for the crocs, but also for its rocks. Particularly, the grandeur of the orange/red/pink/yellow/cream sandstone cliffs streaked with cyanobacterial staining that looked like a giant had kicked over a tin of black paint, allowing it to drizzle down the cliff faces. Motoringthrough narrow river gorges past these magnificently colored cliffs or lazing on our back deck watching as the colors changed with the different angles of the sun had left an indelible imprint. Erosion and weathering had created fantastical shapes and patterns everywhere we looked. At Langgi we walked among sandstone pillars up to 50 feet high, each weathered into shapes that an active mind could interpret as looking like people or animals. In fact, they rather reminded me of the pictures of China's stone warriors.
On our many excursions ashore we had to climb/stumble over and around huge boulders to access pockets of rainforest and freshwater pools fed by tumbling cascades and waterfalls. Massive, rounded rumble holes created by river stones gouging out perfectly circular holes in the underlying rock, and the sight of boulders weighing tons that had been hurtled downstream during a flood provided clear demonstrations of the power of water.
At Montgomery Reef, an area of over 400 square miles, the huge (up to 40 feet) tides allow the reef to dry for up to 20 feet at low tide. Safely anchored in a deep gutter over a mile inside the reef, we witnessed one of nature's miracles—a waterfall off a coral reef. As the tide dropped, the water from the shallow lagoon on top of the reef poured over the sides, sounding and looking like a massive waterfall.
NAVIGATING UNCHARTED WATERS
These enormous tides with their resultant currents and whirlpools that swoosh a vessel well off course within seconds, as well as the many areas that are still uncharted, make cruising the Kimberley an interesting and challenging navigational exercise. In the Mitchell River we needed over 20 feet of tide just to clear the drying sandbanks that bar access to the upper reaches of the river. Even then we had to make sure we dodged a couple of uncharted rocks that cover at High Water Springs and lie midstream.
Several other rivers in the region are just as tricky to negotiate. Throughout the Kimberley there are large rocks or rocky reefs that have been named after the unlucky vessel that “found” them. We heard tales of cruising vessels stranded 15–20-feet up on rocks at low tide while their crews waited anxiously for the following high tide to refloat them. Nick and I decided that our Kimberley cruise would be successful if we didn't have a rock named after Yawarra II.
Once again we're humbled by the thought of the early sailors and pearl lugger skippers who played their trade along this coastline. In particular, we honor the memory of Commander Phillip Parker King, who in 1818 was asked by the British Admiralty to fill in the charting gaps left by Matthew Flinders. On four voyages in his sailing ship, Mermaid (which had a 9-foot draft!), he explored the Kimberley. Much of his crew's time was spent searching for fresh water. The fact that to this day there are such large, uncharted areas is indicative of what a difficult place it is to cruise.
ANCIENT ABORIGINAL ROCK ART
Finally, due to the large number of aboriginal art sites, the Kimberley has left a lasting place in our memories. Many are thousands of years old. The art is of two different styles—the Bradshaw (named after a European who “discovered” this style in the 1890s), otherwise known as Gwion Gwion, after the tiny birds whose beaks were used as brushes, and the Wandjina. The Bradshaw's distinctive finely drawn lines depict humans with knobby knees and elbows and tassels on their wrists and ankles. The hairstyles shown look almost Rastafarian/African. There are also finely drawn animals. This art style is only found on the west coast of Australia whereas theWandjina style, much more primitive-looking (though apparently much more modern) paintings with thicker lines (drawn with a finger?) is found throughout the country.
Some of the art remains in good condition and some has been degraded due to weathering and erosion. Some paintings are clearly of people, including men wearing trousers and smoking pipes—presumably sailors of old. Others depict boats, from papyrus canoes with up-curved ends to three-masted sailing ships. There are animals, mostly native, but one we saw depicted a domestic cat, perhaps a ship's cat from an early Portuguese sailing vessel, and also sea life. Others remain a mystery. Maybe they represent spirit figures, nobody really knows. The paintings can be tiny or greater than life-sized and there may be just one or two or up to dozens found on rock walls, on roofs of caves, or under ledges.
A SAD FAREWELL AND A PROMISE TO RETURN
The Kimberley is a very special, incredibly beautiful, remote, and intriguing area that we believe is one of the top cruising grounds in the world. It's also a fisherman's paradise and Nick would never forgive me if I didn't mention the over 3-foot-long Barramundi—one of Australia's top table fish—that he landed. It was with a sad heart and a promise to return that we finished our Kimberley cruise in Broome. The area warrants a much more detailed exploration than our less than five-month cruise permitted.
Within one day of our arrival in Broome and wishing to avoid some heavy weather forecast for later in the week, we were under way on a 1,684-mile voyage that would take us to Tioman Island on the east coast of Malaysia. Although we have sailed many thousands of miles offshore, including a circumnavigation via Cape Horn, this would be our first long offshore passage in a motorboat. Yawarra II is no Nordhavn with a proven offshore pedigree, so it was with some trepidation that we motored out to sea on a voyage that would take us from the remote Australian wilderness to the bustling shores of Southeast Asia.