Standing on the shore of the Indian Ocean at Cape Leveque, the red bluff cliffs dropping vertiginously behind me, I saw a line of humpback whales in the far distance. The salt mist of their exhalations broke the horizon, as not one, two or three cetaceans, but at least seven, choreographed harmoniously in perfect formation.
Filling one third of the continent, and with space enough to just about embrace three Englands, Western Australia is a state that demands time: its capital, Perth, is famously the most isolated city in the world and its lesser known Dampier Peninsula might just be the globe’s wildest outpost.
Situated in the Kimberley region in Australia’s northwest, this peninsula long flew under the radar, but now well-heeled Sydneysiders regularly head out west for this area’s ochre earth vistas.
The adventure of getting there is a big part of the attraction: my parents have been based in Perth, the state capital, for over twenty years, but it still took luck, serious forward planning and a bit of insider knowledge for me to get to the Dampier Peninsula’s northerly tip – Cape Leveque – on my first trip back in 2013.
Short of time, I decided to take to the skies rather than travel by land, boarding a light aircraft for a day trip to the Kooljaman Wilderness Camp. The scenic flight to the camp takes a detour over to the Horizontal Falls, part of the Buccaneer Archipelago and the world’s only sideways flowing waterfall. In addition to innumerable islands, cays and turquoise coastal shelves, we spotted an abundance of marine life – our eagle-eyed pilot circled around for a better view of a jumping humpback calf, a small speck beneath us.
Landing on the paprika sand next to the indigenous-owned resort was James Bond-esque, though the short walk to the resort was far less formal than the agent’s usual suited look. Kicking off my shoes, I headed straight to the golden sands of the eastern swimming beach. Returning by air at sunset, we had a last view of Broome’s famous camel trains, a daily sight on Cable Beach, but so different when seen from the air.
The peninsula gets its moniker from British sea explorer William Dampier, but the archipelago’s name is a more honest nod to the colonisation and piracy that is expertly woven into the nomenclature of the entire continent.
In a rebalancing of power, Kooljaman is owned by the original inhabitants of Bardi Jawi country. And as custodians, they’ve done a sustainable job of growing tourism, while keeping land and traditions alive, going off grid with solar energy and serving locally sourced ingredients.
The successful fusion menu at their restaurant, Raugi’s, uses little known native ingredients like the gubinge, or Kakadu plum. A Bush Butler service is provided for those overnighting, with robust reds and fine cuts of meat for you to barbecue yourself, delivered to your cabin’s terrace.
During the day, local guide Bundy, took us on a bushtucker walk to see the area. As we walked, he regaled us with the wisdom of ages, handing us native fruits and berries to taste, plucked fresh from the branch. Those keen for faster travel can rent a 4WD and follow Brian Lee, another local guide, on his regular trips to Hunter’s Creek to go mud-crabbing and spear fishing.
While I first arrived by air, Cape Leveque is an ideal road-trip destination, with well-equipped camping areas popular with the grey nomads who travel Australia’s top end during winter months, avoiding the ‘cold’ down south.
So, it was that I once again found myself taking on the journey out west, to dedicate more time to this rugged land. For a bumpy few hours on the unsealed dirt road, my body was jolted out of the previous comfortable days spent in Broome; the chilled-out beach destination and former pearl trading hub that marks the start of the journey into the peninsula.
I had joined Kimberley Wild Expeditions, who offer fully inclusive road trips from Broome so visitors don’t have to take on the rugged three day round trip themselves. The route takes in the magnificence of the Kimberley coastline and ends in a private safari camp near the Cygnet Bay pearl farm.
En route, we stopped at Beagle Bay, named by the HMS Beagle captain John Clements Wickham after mooring there in 1838, and home to one of three Aboriginal communities on the peninsula. A local Nyul Nyul guide took my group around the small town. Our final stop was the Sacred Heart church, a vestige of Catholic missionaries, and a glaringly white, anomalous protrusion amidst the natural habitat. Built by locals and Pallottine monks, the beauty of its mother of pearl altar was an unexpected delight.
At Ardyaloon, or One Arm Point, we had a picnic lunch at the trochus hatchery and aquaculture centre, as well as a lesson in Indian Ocean biodiversity – during feeding time, children squealed as jumping fish took morsels from their fingers.
When we finally arrived at camp, I found a moment of peace watching humpbacks breach and frolic around a private yacht from the shore. The cliffs behind me burnished crimson as the day slipped away, and I made a resolution to return a third time.
As our guide called us back to camp for a barbecued supper and a few cold beers, I hesitated, imagining being on the deck of that vessel, watching the show that was about to unfold. Air and land – sea could only be next.
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