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I'm scanning the ground for signs of life. So far, an hour into the flight from Broome to Australia's remote north-western coast, I haven't seen a thing. The ground below looks unreal, like a topographical map - globular layers of browns on greens on blues, and not a settlement in sight. The land doesn't so much end here as fragment, gradually dissolving into the sea, before puckering up again in the shape of Indonesia, the next landfall, some 500 miles away. Sydney, meanwhile, lies 2,100 miles to the south.
The swirling bars of sand and sun-bleached mud flats look sulphuric viewed through the misty windows of our little 12-seater plane. But make no mistake: although I've seen neither man nor beast below, they are down there. Half an hour later, we get to meet some of them. Our plane comes to a gliding halt on the water and, as we step out on to its floats, a school of sharks appears, grey and dolphin-like, inches from the surface. “Tawny nursing sharks,” says the human part of this welcoming committee, from a waiting speedboat. “Totally harmless. I'm Ben. Welcome to Kuri Bay.”
As we speed away from the Cessna Caravan (an unfittingly frumpy name for this slick aircraft), Ben gives us a wink. “We've got you now. You're not going anywhere.” For all its remoteness - seaplane or lengthy sea passage are the only ways into Kuri Bay - this part of Western Australia has a history of human occupation. For the past 150 years, the coast surrounding Broome has been the centre of the world's pearling industry. Farms dedicated to culturing, cleaning and harvesting the Pinctada maxima oysters that produce high-grade South Sea pearls stud this seemingly endless coastline. Kuri Bay is one of these, a flagship farm for the pearling giant Paspaley, which this summer has begun dedicating itself to culturing a new product: tourism.
Kuri Bay is just one of around 20 lodges on the Kimberley region's new Aerial Highway. Often described as Australia's final frontier, the Kimberley is one-and-a-half times the size of the British Isles, and home to more kangaroos than people. Roads are few and only a handful of private ships and fishing boats cruise the coastline. But now it's possible to navigate this pristine landscape by air, via a network of small airlines and 13 airstrips that service the region's pearl farms, homesteads and rising number of luxury camps.
On the terrace of Kuri Bay, we settle on rough-hewn wooden benches to look out over the Indian Ocean where, in August, whales can be spotted - the region is home to the world's largest population of humpbacks. Guest rooms, just five of them, are in simple, renovated pearl-workers' digs - stilted cabins with wrap-around decks, and cheery green-and-white latticework. But this is no fly-and-flop resort. What you're paying for here - including the flights - is a once-in-a-lifetime investment, the privilege of being in true frontier country. Adding Kuri Bay to an Aerial Highway itinerary is expensive, with rates here costing over £1,000 (about R12 000) per person per night, all-inclusive - although this is set to drop when the lodge buys its own plane.
“There's a whole plethora of dangerous wildlife off the end of that jetty,” says Ben with a grin, listing everything from sharks and box jellyfish to pythons, deadly taipan snakes and mammal-sized spiders. “Plus the two-metre croc' who's been known to sunbathe on the dock,” he says, as an afterthought. The list of dos and don'ts that follows this roll call of ferocious fauna is sensible and short, and delivered by Ben and his co-manager, John, with a consummate “Aussie bloke” straightforwardness; I'm somehow left completely at ease.
Back out on the boat, later, this easy atmosphere prevails. We drift, motor off, along Samson's Creek, named after a 19th-century aboriginal banished here by his people. Walls of sheer, red rock tower above us. Out at sea, wet-season cyclones, which can batter the Kimberley's coast, claim the lives of pearl divers and fisherman, but inland the uninitiated fare little better. On Sheep Island we find the burial site of a Melbournite who settled here during one of Australia's many drives north in the 1860s. The grave of Mary Jane Pascoe lies in the scant shade of a boab. She died in childbirth, aged 30, her infant following her two months later, the sorry fate of many in this settlement that lasted just two years.
It's an uneasy honour to be a tourist in such unforgiving terrain, peppered with places such as Disappointment Bay and False Point. But our speedboat navigates its way effortlessly, skirting comically phallic-looking rocks where crocodiles bask, open-jawed in the sun. A sunrise fishing cruise produces barracuda and a trevally (giant kingfish) that oinks like a piglet until we plop it back in the water. Sunset barbecues are on white-sand beaches that few, if any, have ever set foot on. At camp, under a star-encrusted sky, I try to identify constellations as dingoes howl over the eastern escarpment. Sleep brings unusually vivid dreams, which Ben - having guessed as much - reveals is common among guests.
“I get them too,” he says. “Kuri Bay is an aboriginal Dreamtime site, where locals come for word from their ancestors.” The bay is littered with indigenous art, but, for now, access to the artworks' locations is limited by aboriginal authorities. In the meantime, the focus for tourists is on Kuri Bay's pearling heritage. Hunks of old Victorian machinery, pearl crushers, pumps and a huge divers' hard-hat stand around the grounds, and a museum of Paspaley family artefacts is planned. How ships conveyed these 10-ton tools is a wonder to me. Everything, including food, still has to be shipped in weekly. Despite this restriction, meals are excellent, currently produced by Pearse McLaughlan, a young Irish chef, fresh from Belfast's Michelin-starred Deanes restaurant.
“I didn't know what to expect,” says Pearse, eyes dinner-plate-wide. “It's a lot different to home, but I'm loving it.” This sentiment seems to be echoed by most people we meet in the Kimberley. An hour's flight south-east brings us to the old cattle-farming estate, El Questro, which dates back to 1903. It was established as a lodge in 1991 by British-born aristocrats Will and Celia Burrell, and the place has the feel of a well-heeled homestead, albeit one set in a million-acre wilderness park, carved with vast gorges, four major river systems, hidden waterfalls and thermal springs. The couple sold in 2005 and El Questro is now run by a Canadian, Lori Litwack, and her chef partner, Al Groom, a tough-talking Yorkshireman. “You couldn't make me live anywhere else,” says Al, who seems to relish the challenge of producing gourmet dinners in the middle of nowhere. “I've travelled all over but you can really 'live' here. The place is magic.”
High above the Pentecost River, the exclusive homestead, set around shady terraces and manicured lawns, accommodates just 18 people. Four cliff-edge suites opened this summer, a complement to the Pentecost's cyclone-denuded gorge, a casualty of last year's wet season. More affordable, and in many ways just as beautifully located, are the estate's clusters of cabins and central campground. Nature walks and river cruises into the wilderness park are guided by a retinue of blonde, khaki-clad girls with peaches and cream complexions and an insatiable lust for the big outdoors.
“Australian Geographic were out here last year and they found several new species of flora and fauna,” says our Queenslander guide, Larissa. “There are places here that haven't been discovered.”
Our next stop on the Aerial Highway, was, until very recently, exactly that. The Bungle Bungle, a superlative display of Australian geological weirdness, came to the world's attention only in 1982 when a TV crew stumbled across it. Today, this range of beehive-shaped mountains has become an icon of the Australian outback, protected by the Purnululu National Park, the fringes of which host a growing number of bush camps. From El Questro, we bump an hour along the Gibb River Road, one of the Kimberley's few overland arteries, to pick up another 12-seater Cessna from Kununurra.
There's no doubt that this dense arrangement of stripy domes is mesmerising from the sky, but on the ground they do what Australian topography does best: reduce you to a gawping, inconsequential speck of life. Here, termite mounds are bigger, two times bigger in many cases, than the average tourist, and the Bungles themselves - which look almost pint-sized and plump from the air - rise a defiant 2,000 feet out of an otherwise flat terrain.
There's much talk of the “big wet” in the Kimberley, when cyclones and floods render the region largely inaccessible. And Jimmy, my local Kija aboriginal guide, can't get enough of it. “In the wet there are berries all over the trees. And fish in the creek. A bit of salt and pepper and they make good eating.” The Kimberley's dry, tropical savannah is not short on natural riches if you know where to find them.
Our flight back to the coastal hub of Broome travels over the Argyle Diamond Mine, just one of Western Australia's numerous mines that have some of the world's largest deposits of minerals - such as pink diamonds, uranium, lead, tin, bauxite, gold. The hot dinner-table topic in the Kimberley currently is the controversial super-taxes being imposed on mining by the Australian government in order to redistribute some of this unprecedented wealth.
But a two-tier economy is in the state's DNA. The port town of Broome owes its very existence to the 19th-century boom, when the town grew around the wealth of the “Pearl Kings”. These tenacious few industrialists made such money from their life-risking, skin-diving workforce, they could afford to ship in clothes from Paris, and send laundry by boat to Singapore. And given that these coastal cowboys always wore white on the town's red-dirt streets, that was a lot of washing.
Broome today, like many northern Australian beach towns, is defined by sun-soaked, dune-backed beaches that stretch as far as the eye can see, and an itinerant population of European workers. Most locals have migrated to the mines, where, everyone can't wait to tell you, even a bus driver earns $180,000 a year. This may or may not be true, but the few who get to work along Kimberley's Aerial Highway are, to my mind, the really lucky ones.
If You GO...
Sarah Barrell travelled as a guest of Tourism WA (westernaust ralia.com), and Emirates (0844 800 2777; emirates.com/uk)
Perth is also accessible with Qantas (08457 747 767; qantas.com)
Air North (airnorth.com.au) flies onwards to Broome and destinations across Western Australia.
Kimberley Aerial Highway: westernaustralia.com/kimberleyaerialhighway.
Bridge & Wickers (020-7386 4610; bridgeandwickers.co.uk) has a nine-night trip to the Kimberley from £3,895 per person, including return Qantas flights from Heathrow (via Singapore) to Perth, staying three nights at Cable Beach Club Resort, flight to Kununurra and a five-night “Domes Explorer” escorted tour including two at El Questro, with most meals included.
A similar trip, with a three-night, full-board stay at Kuri Bay, with private seaplane/helicopter transfers, costs £8,236 per person.
Kuri Bay (00 61 2 9571 6399; kuribay.com.au).
El Questro (00 61 08 9161 4318; elquestro.com.au). - The Independent on Sunday