If you aren’t Australian and you’ve heard of the Kimberley, I will be genuinely impressed.
If you’ve visited the Kimberley – Aussie or not – I’ll be shocked and probably ask if you want to grab coffee and gab about our experiences.
It’s not that the Kimberley is unknown or unvisited. It’s just, perhaps, overlooked.
Certainly less traveled than many other Australian destinations. Its isolation, severe climate and lack of infrastructure deter many from making the trip.
Tourism Australia calls it “one of the world’s last wilderness frontiers.”
That’s precisely what’s attractive to the travelers who do venture in. The rugged time-worn beauty and relative obscurity of a place that’s been left to its own devices for millions of years promises an authentic Australian outback experience to those adventurous enough to seek it out.
But you have to coax out the Kimberley’s charms. They aren’t always evident on the surface. The Kimberley will reveal itself to you, if you travel deep enough.
Eventually the red dirt will make its way onto your skin and into your lungs. Imprinted in you, in its own way.
If you aren’t familiar with this corner of the world, please allow me to introduce you.
How the Kimberley Region Came to Be
Ok, “corner of the world” may be a bit limiting. The Kimberley region, located in northwest Australia, is three times the size of England.
And it used to be its own land mass.
It’s so geologically distinct that all but one river (the Fitzroy) are contained within the region, and it has the highest rate of microendimism than any other part of the continent. (Microendimism is defined as plants and animals that are evolutionarily unique to only a small region. Don’t worry, I didn’t know that either until I began researching this article.)
Humans are believed to have arrived in the region about 50,000 years ago, when Australia was still connected to New Guinea and Tasmania on the supercontinent Sahul. This makes Aboriginal Australians the oldest civilization on earth. Local rock art can date back around 40,000 years in some places.
Features of the Kimberley
The Kimberley Plateau, which makes up most of region, is an uplifted land mass topped with sandstone that has been eroded by wind and powerful monsoon rains over the last tens of millions of years to create the gorged and gouged landscape we see today.
Springs and rivers are relatively abundant even though the region is semiarid. A strong monsoon season floods it with water every year.
Many of the rivers have cut deep into the sandstone over time, creating tall cliffs and waterfalls that seem to fall out from under your feet.
It’s easy to spot the rivers from high ground during dry season– just look for pockets of bright green vegetation.
The Kimberley region is rich with plant and animal life due to the wide range of available habitats. There are 65 species of known endemic animals and 300 species of known endemic plants, though more probably exist.
Gum trees and spinifex grasses are a dominant feature, along with distinctive termite mounds and boab trees that dot the landscape.
Despite the variety of flora and fauna, the soil is generally nutrient poor. This probably contributes to the area’s small population and continued isolation, since there isn’t much use for the land outside of cattle grazing (except in certain areas).
Even the cattle are left to fend for themselves for years before they’re rounded up for slaughter.
Controlled burns are commonplace throughout the region in order to manage the plant life. Aboriginal people have managed the land with fire for tens of thousands of years, and the flora have evolved to need the fire in order to regenerate, reproduce, and thrive.
Remarkably, Aboriginal lands have been largely preserved even though the area was colonized after the continent’s discovery by Europeans. About 70 percent of the Kimberley’s land is governed by Native Title laws, granting exclusive and non-exclusive land rights to Aboriginal people.
Why Visit the Kimberley Region
It’s evident when visiting that the people who live in the Kimberley honor and cherish the land.
As a traveler, I got the strong impression that residents thought of themselves more as stewards of the land and its traditions, not as owners of property who can exploit it how they choose.
The area’s isolation is a major selling point. Cable Beach in Broome, for instance, is a world-class beach that could easily be overrun with tourists. It probably receives more visitors than anywhere else in the region, but there’s still ample room to spread out and get away from other humans.
People become more scarce the farther inland or up the coast you go.
The presence and richness of Aboriginal cultures in the region is another reason to visit. There are ample options for tours led by Aboriginal guides, which I highly recommend.
I’m grateful to have had Bardi Jawi guides explain the significance of One Arm Point and Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm in the Dampier Peninsula. A Bunuba guide led us through the Tunnel Creek cave and shared the story of Jandamarra, who rebelled against colonization in the area.
The land is extremely well preserved and able to run wild without much human interference (save for the controlled burns). An ancient and largely untouched landscape is hard to find in most parts of the world, due to human settlement and attempts to control the land.
The fact that it’s still mostly wild works to the Kimberley’s benefit, because its features are spectacular.
The bright orange cliffs and turquoise waters of Cape Leveque.
The many gorges and waterfalls along the Gibb River Road.
The anvil bluffs of El Questro.
Lake Argyle, the irrigation marvel.
The Bungle Bungle Range at Purnululu National Park.
There are countless other reasons why this reason is special, but I shouldn’t reveal all its secrets.
Planning Your Visit to the Kimberley
One drawback to visiting is that it isn’t exactly easy to get in and around the Kimberley.
Flights are expensive. The wet season makes it impossible to access large swaths of the region between November and April.
Distances are formidable. It can take half a day of driving or more to get from one sight to the next.
Roads are unpaved. You need a 4×4 to drive anywhere except around the cities and on the Great Northern Highway. However, conquering the legendary Gibb River Road is a true bragging right for many Australians.
There are even bumper stickers boasting “I survived the Gibb River Road” because of how punishing the unpaved stretches of road can be.
The easiest jumping-off point for a visit is from Broome, the largest town in the region. It has all the services and accommodations that a traveler could need, with daily flights that service major cities across Australia.
Choose Your Own Adventure
There are many options for seeing the Kimberley’s sights, and they generally break down into the categories of land, air, and sea.
By land: You can take a 4×4 to access most of what the region has to offer. Distances are far, though, and there aren’t many options for stops along the way. But if you’re into hiking and exploring the gorges and waterfalls, this is the way to go.
Many tour companies offer excursions around the Kimberley for those who want to leave the planning to the experts. I opted for a 13-day loop with Kimberley Wild.
By sea: Many of the Kimberley’s sights are along remote coastline and are only accessible by boat.
The strong currents of the giant tides along the Dampier Peninsula and Buccaneer Archipelago, the second largest in the world, are a wonder to witness. There are two horizontal waterfalls created by the tides that can only be accessed by boat.
Cruises depart Broome and Darwin frequently to explore the coast, but they can be very costly.
By air: Perhaps the most efficient way to see the sprawling Kimberley landscapes is by air. Airfields dot the region, as that’s how mail service gets to the remote interior.
Airplanes and helicopters can take you where cars, your feet, and boats can’t. And the views from above are simply stunning.
Tours by air can be rather expensive, but day trips are more reasonable. Many tour companies offer day trip packages up the Dampier Peninsula to see the Horizontal Falls and Cape Levque, often with a cruise included.
Purnululu National Park, home to the famous “beehive” formations of the Bungle Bungle Range, has more visitors by air each year than by land.
No matter what method of touring you choose, planning ahead is essential. The Kimberley doesn’t have the infrastructure to support simply winging it, unless you already have a camper full of supplies.
The Final Word
There really aren’t adequate words to describe the Kimberley. Photos don’t do justice to the feeling of being in the middle of a vast, remote, untamed landscape.
Hearing the wind rustle the spinifex grass. Sleeping beneath the bright Milky Way. Waking up to the throaty squawk of a cockatoo. Catching a first glimpse of a waterfall cascading off a cliff.
And knowing it’s all located in a developed country, right under everyone’s noses.
The fact that it flies under the radar is an advantage, though.
My feelings on promoting tourism to a place like this are complex. I keep coming back to the idea that keeping the Kimberley special means keeping mass tourism at bay. Yet, increased tourism would be a boon for the local economy.
As more roads are paved and more luxury resorts are built to beckon travelers from around the world, it’s only a matter of time before the Kimberley becomes a must-visit destination.
My advice to you: Go now, while it’s still wild.
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