A long the white sand beaches and then venturing into the blue beyond to its islands, there’s a whole other side of WA to be experienced.
And if there’s one big, new travel thought at this time, its to consider heading offshore to get a new perspective.
The Australian Government’s Geoscience Australia says that the coastline of WA’s islands is 7894km — and there are more than 2500.
The State’s mainland coastline is 12,895km.
And that’s a lot of new adventures to be had.
Ships & Trips
Let’s be clear that we are not talking about big cruise ships, and we are not talking about ships coming in from foreign waters.
We are talking about big yachts, catamarans and “expedition style” cruise ships.
We are, for example, looking at purpose-built small ships with a maximum of 18 guests; a catamaran with 36 travellers in 18 staterooms; a fancy expedition ship with 20 crew and a maximum of 35 passengers; a 93m ship with up to 120 passengers.
There’s now a wide range of comforts and prices, from pretty simple to luxury — and with prices to match, of course.
Everything has been shaken up this year (don’t we all know that) — and that will continue into next year for cruise companies with small-ship and expedition cruises along the WA coast.
The Kimberley cruising season is from April to September, and cruises are from four nights through to “the classic” 10-night itinerary to about 14 nights. Some of the longer itineraries are between Broome and Darwin, but you don’t have to commit to crossing any borders to see the key sights and landmarks — I reckon most of the good stuff is on the western end of these itineraries, out of Broome. Even most of the short itineraries will cover the key spots mentioned in these pages.
But that’s just the Kimberley. As ships have had to “stay home” (just like us), their operators have been bringing them south for summer, during the wet season up north, and coming up with itineraries particularly for the Mid West, South West and south coasts.
These include more itineraries which include, for example, the Abrolhos Islands; voyages with stops in the Margaret River region, which include wine-and-dine experiences; and time in the Recherche Archipelago off Esperance.
So, it is an unusual moment, having these ships available to explore these places — and having just us here to do it.
If you are thinking about the coast and islands, there’s a pretty simple matrix to work on. Work out where you sit on the grid.
Are you, for example, more interested in landings, sights and landscapes, or in comforts on board? Do you want a short cruise or a long cruise? Do you want to do it as inexpensively as possible, or splurge?
All of these balance out.
You can go inexpensively, for just a few days on a simple ship. You can go high luxury for 10 or more days. Or you can find very good expedition cruising somewhere in the middle.
The Kimberley coast is one of Australia’s 15 listed national biodiversity hotspots, and a lot of it is only accessible by sea. And so it’s natural that it has become synonymous with remote expedition cruising.
Cruising options have been growing. Once the domain of only high-end (and high-priced cruises), there are more options now, with shorter, relatively inexpensive trips, comfortable mid-range ships added to the luxury cruisers.
These are some of the classic spots on the Kimberley coast …
HUNTER RIVER It twists away from Prince Frederick Harbour, past red Kimberley sandstone rock walls to mangroves, and to the Hunter Falls and Donkin Falls, both 100m tall.
KING GEORGE FALLS The twin King George Falls are a classic Kimberley cruising sight on the 112km long King George River. Cruise ships put in small boats to explore, and there’s a chance to land and walk to the top
MONTGOMERY REEF As the tide falls, up to 400sqkm of the offshore Montgomery Reef is exposed. Opposite Doubtful Bay and 20km off the coast, the reef appears to rise out of the sea, draining in a continuous waterfall. Fully exposed on a 10m tide, the reef is up to 80km long.
KING’S CASCADE This fall of more than 25m in Cascade Creek, which is a tributary to the Prince Regent River, is a classic “champagne cascade” waterfall down a stepped rock face.
HORIZONTAL FALLS As the tide rises the ocean pushes through two gaps, filling the big “bowls” behind. This creates the Horizontal Falls. First it streams through the “Wide Gap”, just 20m across, with water about 40m deep, and then the “Narrow Gap”, further in and only 7.5m across, also with 40m of water below. The effect is, indeed, that of horizontal waterfalls. Ships launch small boats to go through the gaps, for guests to experience the power of the tides and the remoteness of the spot.
BUCCANEER ARCHIPELAGO Some cruise companies add twists to their itineraries, as there are 1000 islands in the Buccaneer Archipelago. Some have arrangements with traditional owners, which gives access. So look for the differences between what’s offered, if you want to go beyond the icons. Once ranges, ridges and valleys, when the sea level rose after the last ice age thawed, the archipelago was left as a spectacular set of islands.
ADELE ISLAND The Kimberley Marine Park surrounds Adele Island, a remote and beautiful spot 100km north of Broome which is a hotspot for marine mammals such as dolphins, whales and dugong, and where many seabirds and shorebirds breed and forage. Humpback whales breed and calf in the Kimberley Marine Park and Australian snubfin dolphins, Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins and spotted bottlenose dolphin come here to breed. The park covers 74,469sqkm and has depths from less than 15m to 800m.
DERBY Derby always feels a bit like an island to me. It is surrounded on three sides by mudflats, and on the other side, its big jetty sticks out like a bent finger, high above the tidal waters. It was first built in 1894 as a wooden wharf and linked to the town by a horse drawn tramway across the mudflats, over a causeway. But in 1964, the new jetty was built. It is a popular place to fish King Sound for golden grunter, north west salmon, shark and silver cobbler and mud crabs on the incoming tides.
ROWLEY SHOALS A chain of coral, with a healthy marine life ecosystem, the Rowley Shoals are protected by a Marine Conservation Park, 260km off Broome. This is a great dive and snorkelling spot — certainly famous around the world — and the fishing at Clerke Reef is legendary. The Rowley Shoals is made up of three coral atolls, which extend from the seabed to the surface. They are about 6km wide by 9km long. Bird colonies use caves on two of the atolls. Mermaid Reef is a Class A Nature Reserve. Expect water temperatures between 24C and as high as 30C.
MONTEBELLO ISLANDS In 1952, after World War II, the British government decided it needed to develop atomic weapons and chose the Montebello Islands, off the Pilbara coast. The British conducted two more nuclear weapons tests on the Montebellos in 1956. And that history seems at odd with the magnificence of this group of more than 170 small islands and their superb reef system today. Swim, snorkel, fish or wander the beaches. Game fishers will be looking for blue marlin, black and stripe marlin (and sailfish, too).
DAMPIER ARCHIPELAGO The 42 islands of the Dampier Archipelago, off Karratha, have deep water, reef and sheltered inlet fishing. There’s coral trout, red emperor, scarlet sea perch, spangled emperor, Norwest snapper and blue bone. Camping is allowed within 100m of the high water mark on all beaches on Angel Island, Gidley Island and Collier Rocks, and on all the beaches on Dolphin Island, except on the south-eastern side.
MACKEREL ISLANDS Off the Pilbara coast near Onslow, the two main islands are Thevenard and Direction, but these are just two of the 10 to be explored. This is pretty much a paradise for marine wildlife and ocean lovers. Fishers will be gearing up for Norwest snapper, big schools of queenfish and golden and giant trevally, sailfish, wahoo and Spanish mackerel.
POINT SAMSON This peninsula in the Pilbara (near Roebourne) feels so remote it almost qualifies as an island. But there are those offshore, too. There are coral gardens and great beaches — particularly John’s Creek and Honeymoon Cove. Marine species range from barramundi to red emperor, prawns to blue manna and mud crabs, there’s a big variety of species in the tidal rivers.
DIRK HARTOG ISLAND Off the Gascoyne coast, Captain Dirk Hartog landed here in 1616. Cape Inscription is the site of the earliest known landings of Europeans in Western Australia. Cape Inscription Lighthouse is on the north end of the island. To the east of the island are the benign waters and coastline of Shark Bay. Along the west coast is the almost unbroken 200km of the Zuytdorp Cliffs, which rise up to 200m out of the Indian Ocean. They were named for the Zuytdorp, a Dutch ship wrecked here in 1712.
MUIRON ISLANDS The Muiron Islands (north and south) and Sunday Island are just 15km off the North West Cape, at Exmouth. On the islands, there are remote beaches — in the water, corals, abundant fish life and manta rays. Three top spots are the Cod Spot on South Muiron (famous for big potato cod and manta ray cleaning stations); The Keyhole (a swim-through dive) and The Gap, between North and South Muiron islands (a drift dive with hard and soft corals).
ABROLHOS ISLANDS Offshore from Geraldton, the Abrolhos Islands have best been known for the story of the Batavia, the wreck of which is just offshore. It struck coral in 1629 and, over 250 reached three small islands nearby, but mass murder and the marooning of two men followed. But today, the Abrolhos Islands (officially the “Houtman Abrolhos”, named by Dutch Commander Frederik de Houtman) has a life beyond this. These islands are now more appreciated for their ability to get travellers away from it all. Easter, Pelsart and Wallabi are the main groups, with beautiful beaches. Its possible to visit the Batavia wreck and Big Rat and Little Rat islands.
ROTTNEST ISLAND Scientists reckon we could have walked to Rottnest Island just 7000 years ago, before the sea level rose after the last ice age, but now, 18km west of Fremantle, it is WA’s favourite offshore playground. Rottnest has the most southern occurrence of tropical coral reefs, formed because of the warmth of the Leeuwin current. On Pocillopora Reef alone, off Parker Point, there more than 20 species of brain, flowerpot, star and mound corals, the dominant species being Cauliflower Coral (Pocillopora damicornis).
CARNAC ISLAND It is a just 19ha and a Class A nature reserve 10km south-west of Fremantle, but it has plenty of history. It is called Ngooloormayup in the language of the Whadjuk Noongar people, meaning place of little brother. French explorer Louis de Freycinet, captain of the Casuarina, was here in 1803, and in 1827, James Stirling named it in honour of John Rivett Carnac, second lieutenant on his ship HMS Success. From 1836 to 1837, the island served as a whaling station. Today it is home to male Australian sea lions, who swim about 200km north of Perth to find females to breed with.
PENGUIN ISLAND About 1000 pairs of little penguins nest on Penguin Island over winter, but the terns are here all summer.
Penguin Island is a nature reserve within the broader Shoalwater Islands Marine Park just south of Rockingham, and its low foliage provides good nesting grounds.
Australian sea lions lounge on the beach. It is estimated that Aboriginal people have been visiting the island for more than 10,000 years, but its most notable resident was the eccentric New Zealander, Seaforth McKenzie.
He first squatted on the island in 1914 and in 1918 was granted a lease by the WA Government. He aimed to establish a holiday resort and some of the limestone caves were hollowed out and roughly furnished.
McKenzie left the island in 1926 and later returned home to his wife Sarah and six children in New Zealand
GARDEN ISLAND While the Royal Australian Navy stops our access over its causeway from Rockingham, Garden Island has long been an important part of our island life.
It is about 10km long and 1.5km wide, between Cockburn Sound and the Indian Ocean.
Seen by Dutch sailors and marked on their maps in 1658, and then by French sailors in the 1800s, it was only when British Captain James Stirling landed in 1827 that it got its name. He saw it as an ideal base from which to explore the Swan River, and when he left again with plans to come back and start a colony, he planted a vegetable garden and left a cow and some sheep and goats.
With hot summers and no water, when he returned in 1829 they were all dead.
The island is now a Class A nature reserve, with good stands of Rottnest cypress and Rottnest tea trees.
Visitors can land on the beaches between sunrise and sunset (but not in the exclusion zone around the naval base). On the west side, there are beaches, great swimming and snorkelling.
RECHERCHE ARCHIPELAGO There are more than 100 islands. Pieter Nuyts and Francois Thijssen sailed into the archipelago in 1627, though it was named by d’Entrecasteaux in 1792 after one ship, Le Recherche, and the town of Esperance after another.
There’s plenty of nautical history. Matthew Flinders was here in the 1800s; Pirate Black Jack Anderson sailed these waters and cached here in the 1830s; the Sanko Harvest sank in the archipelago in 1991, to become a significant dive wreck.
But there are many, many islands to see … Figure of Eight Island, Boxer Island, Observatory, then Charley and Cull …