As devotees of the Indiana Jones epics will know, if the planes get smaller the closer you get to your destination, chances are adventure lies ahead. And so it was as we danced delicately over the surface of the Ord River on the edge of Kununurra, our small light plane casting loose the reins of gravity and climbing towards the north-west.
Two days earlier in mid-June we had departed a Melbourne under siege from a harsh and unrelenting winter on one of the larger craft in the Virgin fleet. The next morning we left Perth for Broome and our plane had shrunken noticeably. Overnighting in Broome, we boarded a yet smaller propeller craft for the flight to Kununurra and the following morning we were down to a single-prop float plane as we headed for our ultimate destination on the Berkeley River at the isolated eastern end of the Kimberley. Our journey would finally be completed on the back of a small all-terrain vehicle as we traversed the dunes that surround the recently completed Berkeley River Lodge.
Reputed to be the most remote resort in Australia, the Berkeley River Lodge is located around 170km north-west of the Western Australian outpost of Wyndham in the northern extremities of the Kimberley. Its 20 luxury eco-styled villas perch on undulating coastal dunes that overlook the Timor Sea to the north and the entrance to the Berkeley River to the east.
Access is only via air or sea, so the four-star lodge really does convey on its guests a sense of isolation and privacy unmatched by most other luxury resorts. But then again, having a helicopter on-site does at least give guests the option of exploring further afield during their stay.
The flight in provided stunning views of the vast north-east Kimberley wilderness, with large river systems spearing inland, their branches snaking through dark brown tidal mudflats flanked by patches of brilliant green mangroves.
Not far from Kununurra the pilot pointed out the location where much of the iconic movie Australia was filmed. He also informed us that we were flying over the vast Carlton Hill Station, which spread to the horizon in every direction. Massive escarpments and rolling hills lay beneath us, weather-worn and exposed from millions of years of rain, wind and unrelenting sun.
MOONLIGHT IN BROOME
Our northern adventure began with a brief stopover in Broome, where we enjoyed the luxury and views on offer at the Moonlight Bay Suites, on the shores of Roebuck Bay.
Boasting 50 suites, Moonlight Bay also has a large pool and spa affording views across the bay, and for those needing some serious rest and relaxation, the facilities of the in-house Kiva Beauty and Relaxation Centre are on offer.
Being located on the shores of the bay means that guests also get to enjoy a local phenomenon called ‘Staircase to the Moon’. This occurs when the full moon rises over the bay coinciding with local massive tidal retreats, which leave shallow puddles of water exposed on the mud flats. When viewed from the hotel, the effect is likened, not surprisingly, to a staircase to the moon.
The hotel is centrally located within an easy stroll of local shops and, more importantly, is just across the road from a local institution called Matso’s Broome Brewery. One of Broome’s most popular bar/restaurants, Matso’s is open year-round for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Visitors can enjoy the micro-brewery’s award-winning, preservative-free, locally brewed beers, with the likes of Hit the Toad premium lager, Monsoonal Blonde wheat beer, Smokey Bishop dark lager or Matso’s famous alcoholic ginger beer plus many more to choose from.
There is also a large and varied menu, and while there visitors can soak up a pictorial record of the rich and colourful history of Broome.
For more information, go to: www.broomeaccommodation.com.au.
Civilisation was soon a distant memory as the only sign of human settlement, the lodge itself, appeared beneath us at the end of our 50-minute flight. We banked over for a better view of our home for the next four days before descending for a water landing on the Berkeley River.
On arrival, we were met by the friendly staff, including resort manager, Jodi Mott, and river boat skipper, Captain Carl. From the time we stepped onto the sand, until we left – reluctantly – this pristine slice of the Kimberley would be ours to enjoy and explore at our leisure.
There is something especially exhilarating about encountering an animal in the wild that is known for its appetite for humans – in particular, unsuspecting or careless tourists.
We had decided to spend the day exploring the coastline to the west of the lodge. The beach unfolds for as far as the eye can see, rewarding day trippers with untrammeled sand dunes, crystal clear rock pools, all manner of crawling and slithering critters and, in our case at least, an opportunity to get reasonably up close and a bit too personal with a member of the genus Crocodylus porosus, otherwise known as the saltwater crocodile.
A small creek wound its way down to the sea a few kilometres from the lodge and peering up over the flanking mangroves, I was initially frozen solid by the sight of a grinning reptile sunning itself on the mudflats not 10m from where I crouched. We spotted each other at the same time. Before I could reach for my camera, the rudely interrupted 2m saltie turned and slithered silently into the brown waters. It moved so quickly and easily that it was gone before I’d really registered its presence. The only evidence of its passing were the telltale tracks in the mud and my racing pulse.
Other wildlife encounters included a memorable moment with a metre-long Mertens water monitor whose day had also been rudely interrupted by an inquisitive, camera-wielding journalist. I was skirting a series of freshwater pools at the top of a waterfall and stooped to take a closer look at a curiously-shaped piece of driftwood. As I did, it turned slowly, stared at me and flicked a tongue in my direction. It was a startling lesson in what a few million years of evolution can do for camouflage techniques.
And there was also what can only be described as a post-mortem encounter with a somewhat larger species, when what I initially took to be a curiously shaped hollow rock lodged in a rock pool, turned out to be a metre-wide whale vertebra. No other remains remained, so to speak, so I can only guess at how the most probably humpback skeletal remnant found its way onto the Berkeley beachfront.
Daily activities were optional, but we decided to take up the offer of a 23km cruise up the river to explore the deep rugged ravines carved from millennia of wet seasons, and to view the abundant bird life, expertly identified by our guides along the way.
A stop-off at Casuarina Falls gave us the opportunity to bathe under the clear water, filtered through kilometres of rock and sand on its way to the ocean. And another stop-off allowed us to explore the upper reaches of a nearby creek, swimming at times through isolated water holes for a refreshing break from the tropical sun. But being near the coast, the heat was never overbearing or uncomfortable.
We tried our luck at fishing too, but the local underwater life was far too clever for a few luckless tourists and while our guide and skipper, Carl assured us that large finned creatures were only a rod cast away, none could be enticed to our hooks. I am assured, though, that there is an abundance of good fishing on offer, from the iconic sporting barra to all manner of tropical species, such as mangrove jack, gianttrevally and queen fish, in the river system and offshore.
While the Dunes restaurant lured us every night with all manner of innovative gastronomic delights, we were also entertained one evening with a spot of star gazing and an astronomy talk by expert guide, Oliver, who improved our astronomical awareness with a star-spotting lesson delivered under pin-sharp skies undiluted by the light of major population centres.
Another evening, head chef James Ward spoiled us by serving up a four-course feast in a small clearing atop the dunes. Lit by candlelight, warmed by a selection of fine wines and cooled by light ocean breezes, it was a memorable way to experience the isolation of the north under a sky sparkling with the light of a billion stars. A very special night, indeed.
Each day began with a spectacular sunrise enjoyed from the comfort of our own dune-top, air-conditioned villa, complete with its own outdoor bathroom and shower. It was particularly refreshing to be able to start the day with nothing between us and the sky but a stream of hot water from the shower head. And it was equally uplifting to view the sunset each evening on our own balcony overlooking the Timor Sea, while enjoying some chilled liquid relaxation prior to dinner.
Speaking of which, the standard of fare in the restaurant would be difficult to fault. Each evening we were treated to multiple courses of fine cuisine that would rival anything on offer at most major city eateries, with the advantage that many of the ingredients were caught or sourced right in the Kimberley. And to wash it all down our bar manager, Martin was always ready with the perfect choice of wines or cocktails.
It seemed like we’d barely scraped the surface of all there was to explore before the plane returned to ferry us back to the world. Before too long, the planes would start getting bigger again as our Berkeley River adventure faded behind us. But we left filled with memories of a very special place offering a truly unique and exclusive taste of the remote Kimberley.
Those wishing to follow in our tracks need to know a few important points. Firstly, staying in Australia’s most remote luxury resort comes at a cost, taking into account that virtually everything, particularly consumables, has to be flown in. Rates start at $4350 per person twin share for three nights, which includes return flights from Kununurra. Also included are all meals, plus activities such as river and coastal cruises, beach and bush 4WD excursions and fishing trips. Extra nights can be had for $825 per person, twin share.
Potential visitors also need to know that the lodge is closed throughout the height of the wet season, beginning October 15, and reopening on February 1, 2013.
For more information, go to: www.berkeleyriver.com.au.
The wiry figure strode along the dusty track, work boots, shorts and singlet covered in a fine layer of red dust. Beneath his crumpled, wide-brimmed bushman’s hat, his tanned and lined face betrayed years spent under the harsh Kimberley sun. He looked like he’d just done a hard day’s physical work, which, as it turns out, is par for the course for the 62-year-old developer of the Berkeley River Resort.
Martin Peirson-Jones is unapologetically old-school. He believes that you get out of life what you put into it. And he’s certainly put a lot into his since he left the comforts of suburban Melbourne for the unforgiving environment of Australia’s sun-baked north-west at the tender age of 18.
Over close to half a century he’s gone from jakaroo on one of Australia’s largest cattle stations, to road train driver, bush pilot, hotel manager and eventually one of the region’s leading hospitality operators, with multiple properties in his portfolio.
He’s taken on a lot of challenges over the years, but the Berkeley River project stretched his resources more than most.
“The biggest problem we had was that everything had to be barged in from Wyndham and we had to coordinate materials and supplies from all over Australia and Asia and make sure everything matched up with the barge’s sailing schedule,” he said.
The area’s extreme climate, in particular the wet season, which runs from November to April, also had a major part to play.
“It was pretty horrific at times,” said a man used to the hardships of remote locations.
Martin was first introduced to the Berkeley River by friends and realised the tourism potential of the area after a visit a few years ago.
Not long after he heard that the leaseholder of the land on which the resort was built, the Jiamiddie Aboriginal Corporation, was looking for a developer to partner with on a tourism project. With Martin’s experience in the hospitality industry, talks began and the project was soon under way.
“The idea was to give them (the Corporation) some income and employment opportunities. The land would not support pastoral or agricultural activities, so tourism was the only real option,” explained Martin.
“We did a number of site trips and walked for miles around the area looking at various sites,” he said. “Eventually we decided on the final site amongst the dunes. It has such a great outlook both out to sea and down the coast, but is far enough back from the water that it is largely unobtrusive to anyone else who might visit the area.”
Choosing the site was easy – the supply logistics and getting started on building was another thing altogether.
“Our first site office was a tent, and that blew away in a storm,” he recounts.
“We worked from a tented camp and my wife Kim cooked for up to 20 blokes at a time. We had contractors and people sleeping under a fly in the early stages.
“Kim and I lived there for the whole two years of the construction phase. You had to be there as decisions had to be made on the spot a lot of the time.”
All up the lodge took five years from planning to completion, an overriding aim being to ensure it didn’t impact more than necessary on the environment and local wildlife.
The end result more than lives up to Martin’s initial vision of somewhere where visitors could experience the real Kimberley in isolation.
“The lodge encompasses everything that attracts people to the Kimberley. It’s remote, we’ve got great fishing, great beaches and unique wildlife. And the Berkeley River is arguably the best in the Kimberley, with its spectacular scenery, waterholes and waterfalls to enjoy. It really is the whole Kimberley in one place.” ¿