We stood on the aft deck with the guests, watching a reef rise out of the sea with the turn of the immense Kimberley tide. The water hissed loudly as it poured off the brown coral, its sides curved over time by the daily torrent. I looked for stranded fish flapping about, but found none. I expect they’re used to this kind of thing by now.
In north-western Australia, far from the crowded anchorages of the Mediterranean, there’s an area called the Kimberleys. I thoroughly recommend that you go there. Three times the size of England with only about 40 000 inhabitants, its rocky red coastline, thundering waterfalls and aqua seas offer some of the most staggering cruising grounds the world has to offer. Just don’t plan on watersports.
The Kimberleys has a bizarre modern history. Few know that it was briefly considered as a possible Jewish homeland in the early 1900’s- before ancient Palestine was ultimately decided on - and again as a Jewish resettlement option for refugees escaping Nazi Germany. It was also reportedly the only spot in Australia where the Japanese enemy made landfall during WW2, when a reconnaissance party of four soldiers went scouting for secret weapons bases in the Outback*, and apparently returned to Japan suggesting that some prisoners should be released from Japanese jails to wage guerrilla warfare in Australia.
Why is it always the criminals that are sent to invade Australia? The plan wasn’t taken up by the Japanese army, who may have predicted that the convicts would get too comfortable there and come back saying ‘Strewth, Bruce San’ and beating them at cricket/sumo wrestling. Or a combination of the two, which would be much more entertaining.
Mind you, you won’t see any evidence of mankind’s turbulent history while floating through the Kimberleys. It’s quite possible you won’t see any evidence of mankind at all. This is cruising at its most remote, where you can spend weeks and not see another person, another boat - just the occasional buzz of a border control plane overhead, contacting the yacht to check that it’s not running a sideline smuggling Afghanis into the great brown land.
The light up there is so bright it makes your eyes ache, heat waves shimmering off rock and deep red earth waiting for the rains. Pure and raw and quiet, it’s the kind of cruising that almost breaks your heart. It’s a rough beauty though; like much of Australia, this is not a perfect, gentle land but a harsh one, parched and rugged against a vast blue sky.
The boat moved slowly through an archipelago of perfect azure, past islands of red rock carved into fantastic shapes by the wind and the sea. It was almost silent; the only sounds the cries of the birds wheeling above and the voices of the deck crew carrying over the water as they called back depth readings from the tender, finding us a safe path. The dry air seem to almost crackle with heat, and we waited for the afternoon breeze to bring some respite, ruffling up the calm waters.
The yacht stopped for a night in a deep bay, magnificent cliffs curving around and then flattening into scrub forest and a low hill in the distance. A shark circled the boat, its shadow dark and ominous against the underwater lighting.
An immense thundercloud towered above, black and growling at its base and blinding white in the heavens. I sat on the foredeck watching as lightning ignited the dry bush. The fire spread slowly, the crackling of eucalypt trees and long grass carrying to me on the warm night air. A plume of smoke drifted red in front of the setting sun, which hung low in an armageddon sky. I wrote for hours in the moonlight in that distant place, my feet dangling over the bow, the smell of the bushfire hanging in the air, the radar arch throwing its rhythmic shadow across the deck. The only sounds faint splashes and the sound of the anchor chain scraping and screaming under the weight of the twelve metre tides.
It was nearly midnight, and everyone else was inside, and it is likely that I was the only person on earth to see that fire spread. Of all my yachting moments, that one was the best of them all.
I realised that this place may be under the same skies that I was born, with the familiar smells of salt and gum trees and bushfires, but this was a different Australia to the one that I knew.
Far more deadly, for one.
As an Australian, I consider it my patriotic duty to scare the bejeesus out of all foreigners about Australian wildlife. It’s not a difficult thing to do. Having grown up in the Queensland bush with a pet kangaroo (named Skippy, of course) and armed with many stories of deadly snake, spider and even emu encounters, I had all the right credentials. I had taken my role quite seriously with the Brits on board as we’d entered Sydney Heads a few weeks before. I happily talked about hoop snakes and trotted out the drop bear story in the crew mess - those evil koala-like creatures that drop from the trees, scalp their victims and then feast on their brains.* I enjoyed the foreign crew’s scared little faces and felt more than a little tough.
However, as I looked over the waters of the Kimberleys, as we cruised past otherwise perfect beaches with giant leathery crocodiles resting on the hot sands, and up cool dark gorges where the turbulent water was thick with white masses of jellyfish, I realised that there was no way in hell I’d even put my little toe in the water up there.
One morning , I was setting the breakfast table in the pre-dawn quiet, the only sounds the soft clink of cutlery and my feet padding on the deck. I heard a loud splash, and wondered if it was a crocodile lunging for a meal, jaws clamping, or splatting at the water with its jagged tail. The deckhand said a quiet good morning and turned a hose on; the pale deck was soon stained with dark rivulets of water, the water gurgling softly in the scuppers.
I caught myself in the reflection of the sliding doors, the sun was rising now and the cliffs glowed pink in the pale light. There I was, in epaulets, polishing a silver knife between my white gloved finger and thumb and holding it up in the weak golden light to check for smudges…all the while floating on a superyacht off the top of Australia and mulling over whether I would prefer death by crocodile or shark. I imagined falling in the dark water - the panicked scramble to the swim platform - oh no, no ladder! - and which animal I’d prefer to finish me off. Crocodile, I decided. They drown you in a death roll, then store you in a riverbank for a couple of days to let you ferment slightly. No eating on the spot, fast-food style like those frenzied, impatient sharks, ripping you limb from limb. Yes, croc for me, every time.
That important decision made, I moved inside and began vacuuming as the day began to gather its heat and the rest of the crew begin to stir. Yachting, it takes you odd places. The best kind of yachting does, anyway.
About a week into this long voyage of extraordinary beauty, our routine of quiet solitude was broken by a visitor. A pearl diver drove his tin dinghy up to the side of the boat to ‘have a yarn’ (a chat.) Here was the fantastically stereotypical Outback Australian, with a long scruffy beard and a weather-beaten face, blue eyes sparkling under a brown Akubra hat. He was also clearly ‘mad as a cut snake’ to dive for pearls in those dark waters, and I wondered how much thought he’d given to which animal he’d like to die by.
“Strewth!”, he said loudly, “She’s a beauty! How much is she worth?” (I assumed he was talking about the boat, not the stewardess on the swim platform, who was indeed beautiful but probably not for sale.)
The owner, who had left the breakfast table upon hearing the commotion, leaned over the capping rail and they ‘yarned’ for a few minutes. The boss then returned to the table, no doubt delighted to have encountered a true blue Aussie in his natural habitat. I think we were all a bit delighted, to be honest. It was like the English upper class meeting Darryl Kerrigan from the classic film The Castle. He certainly broke the serenity. He hung around for a while, obviously hoping to get invited onboard for a ‘quick squizz’ (quick look), but finally giving up and going away, no doubt ‘totally spewing’ (most thoroughly disappointed).
We upped anchor and left, descending back into our world of hushed voices and familiar faces and continued our journey, with only the birds for company.
I will never forget that trip on a giant white yacht powering through an ancient deserted landscape, pushing through floating seaweed and jellyfish tides, up narrow gorges to thundering waterfalls, all under blazing Australian skies and raging sunsets. If I cruise like that again, with that sense of discovery and wonder, then I will consider myself very lucky indeed.
So if the owners of your yacht prefer natural beauty over bling, then perhaps a nudge in the direction of the Kimberleys might be in order. It’s an astonishing place, with a light all of its own.
*Apparently the Japanese reconnaissance party landed only 25 kms from the site where only weeks later the Royal Australian Air Force began to build a secret base.
*According to Wikipedia, 'Various methods suggested to deter drop bear attacks include placing forks in the hair, having Vegemite or toothpaste spread behind the ears or in the armpits, urinating on yourself, and only speaking English in an Australian accent.' Believe what you will.