The Kimberley region of Western Australia is huge and stunningly beautiful. It was named after the first Earl of Kimberley, John Wodehouse, who was Secretary of State for the Colonies in the late 1800s. Largely inaccessible except by boat or sea plane, we decided the best way to discover this remote coastline was to book a 10 day trip on the Orion, which sails from Darwin to Broome, or from Broome to Darwin. It’s not cheap, but we’ve decided it’s time to start spending our kids’ inheritance and it was worth every penny.
Our gregarious Irish captain Mike Taylor was quick to point out that we were on a ship, not a boat, and that this was an expedition, not a cruise. In Wyndham passengers could opt for a small plane flight over the amazing Bungle Bungles and Lake Argyle or a river boat cruise on the Ord River. From Wyndham to Broome daily excursions by Zodiac allowed passengers to get up close to the spectacular scenery, colourful bird life and hungry-looking crocodiles. We visited the King George River and Falls (a helicopter ride over the falls was an optional extra), the huge Montgomery Reef – which appears at low tide, but is invisible at high tide and the Horizontal Waterfalls in the Buccaneer Archipelago. The rapid tidal fall on the ocean side of the cliffs creates a “waterfall” up to 3 metres high as the water runs through a small gap, into the bay on the other side. A fast boat ride across these falls was one of the most exciting activities of the whole trip, causing a real rush of adrenaline. At Raft Point we were met by some of the Aboriginal landowners and visited caves containing ancient indigenous rock art.
One of the highlights of the trip was the spectacular geology of the region. Many of the bays have high ochre-coloured sandstone cliffs formed about 2 billion years ago when two continents – Australia and Kimberley – collided. Other geological events have resulted in intrusions of magma and twisting of the rock strata, producing natural artworks in amazing colours.
Each evening our expedition leader Mick Fogg gave a presentation on what we had done that day, accompanied by photos, some candid. “I told you not to go near the water because of the crocodiles, but there’s always someone who doesn’t listen”. The culprit, caught red-handed washing the sand off his thongs, was there for all to see, causing much laughter. After this recap of the day’s activities Mick explained arrangements for the following day. The timing of excursions has to be spot on because tides in this part of the world are very high and conditions are constantly changing.
Nothing was too much trouble for the Orion crew. Everyone, including the captain, helped to lift our two disabled passengers in and out of the Zodiacs, so they didn’t miss any of the adventures. We were impressed.
Food on board the Orion is excellent. Dinners are mostly à la carte, with dishes created by French-Canadian Serge Dansereau, owner-chef of the Bather’s Pavilion in Sydney. These are served in the formal below-deck dining room, interspersed with the occasional BBQ or seafood buffet on deck. Providing it’s not too windy it’s delightful to eat under the stars. Lunches and breakfasts are mostly served on deck, buffet style, with a different lunch-time theme each day and closely supervised by Clinton, our friendly and charming Kiwi Maitre d’.
The cabins are comfortable and well-equipped. Ours was on level three and wasn’t huge but certainly big enough and we didn’t spend much time there. As you go further up in the ship, which has six decks, the cabins become more expensive and larger. A spacious elevator makes life easier for anyone disabled or a bit unsteady on their feet.
We became hooked on the late afternoon game of trivia, accompanied by tea and delicious morsels (tried to resist but didn’t always succeed) and run by Glen, the French-Canadian musician, who entertained us after dinner each evening, impersonating the voices of everyone from Charles Aznavour to Louis Armstrong.
The top echelons of the crew were from all over the place – Ireland, South Africa, New Zealand, Russia and the Ukraine – while the remainder were smiley-faced Philippinos. They are a nation of performers and one night passengers were treated to a show, compered by our delightful “hotel” manager Ian Vella. I couldn’t help thinking that if the crew had been comprised of bashful Aussies they would have struggled to put a show together. We once attended a dinner hosted by the Philippine Ambassador to Australia. After the meal it became apparent that everyone was expected to “do a turn” and provide the evening’s entertainment. You can imagine the look of relief on Matthew’s face when we ran out of time and the party ended before they got to him.
Filling in the questionnaire about our trip we were unable to come up with any complaints or suggestions on how the Orion could do things better. Here is my favourite quote from Ian, as he explained disembarkation arrangements: “And if Plan A doesn’t work we’ll go to Plan B. We’ll let you know as soon as we’ve worked out a Plan B.” This comment gave everyone a good laugh, but the truth is that the Orion has everything planned, down to the very last detail.