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Friday, May 31, 2024

Ponant's Kimberley Rock Stars

In Australia’s vast North West, time has stood still for millenia. It’s enough to put anyone in their place.

 wasn’t much life on Earth 1800 million years ago when the dramatic rock formations that characterise Australia’s Kimberley were formed. About 1000 million years later, the most basic of carbon molecules first came together to begin multicellular life as we have come to know it.

Imagine, if you can, the incalculable forces at work. Picture the immense pressure and temperatures needed to ‘fold’ the solid rock layers like so much Danish pastry into waves that tipped once vertical formations on their sides. 

Those of us aboard the tiny Zodiac with a penchant for geology are in awe at the seemingly impossible contortions of the ancient sandstone which, if we had been paying attention at expedition guide Brett Kitchener’s lecture aboard Ponant’s Le Laperouse, would know as King Leopold, Warton and Pentecost sandstone dating back almost two billion years. It’s a powerful demonstration of both nature’s fury and beauty.

Ancient rock is but one of the many attractions drawing visitors to the Kimberley. Here at Talbot Bay, we are guests of the Dambimangari (Worrorra) people, home to the famed Horizontal Falls and described by naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough as one of the world's great natural wonders. 

The falls are actually made up of two ‘gaps’ - a wide (20m) gap and a narrow (10m) gap - each about 300 metres apart across two natural basin reservoirs, formed by the same incredible forces all that time ago, they are much more than just a curious cascade.

As we cautiously approach in our Zodiacs, the torrent is fed by the region’s enormous tidal flow, is just building and presents an opportunity to traverse both gaps in safety while still experiencing the wonder of this unique phenomenon. At peak flow, a difference of up to ten metres occurs with a visual height of up to four metres on the ‘falls’. 

Talbot Bay is known by the traditional name of Lalang-garram, chosen from the Worrorra language meaning “the saltwater as a spiritual place as well as a place of natural abundance”. During our brief visit to these sacred waters, we are fortunate to see stealthy saltwater crocodiles and elusive and oh-so-cute rock wallabies, all the while being surveyed by majestic sea eagles, osprey and brahminy kites. 

Beneath the waters is a plethora of marine life that has evolved from these microscopic formations. Giant barramundi, that regal fish species so revered by anglers, share the rich submarine environment with more than 50 other species including salmon, cod, perch, snapper, mackerel and tuna. The serene dugong are also spotted by the keen-eyed among us, along with nurse sharks while turtles frequently pop up for a ‘sticky beak’.

Let us not forget that the miraculous evolution of multicellular life has also produced a species capable of transporting itself by ingenious devices to beyond the planet. They have constructed machines that defy gravity and traverse the surface of the Earth at high altitude as well as design and launch vessels that utilise the planet’s abundant oceans to reach into the far recesses of where land and sea coincide.

This brings me to Compagnie du Ponant’s Explorer-class expedition vessels, a fine example of how ships have evolved for specific purposes and are able to navigate waters that prohibit the passage of regular cruise ships.

Slightly smaller than Ponant’s 264-passenger Boreal-class vessels introduced in 2010, the Explorer-class first saw service in 2018 with the launch of the 184-passenger Le Laperouse which has been operating in the Kimberley since 2019. 

This year Ponant will operate three ships in the Kimberley: Le Laperouse, the Boreal-class Le Soleal and Le Ponant, the company’s luxury flagship sailing yacht, carrying just 32 guests in tres exclusive style. At the time of writing Le Laperouse was confirmed for Kimberley in 2024, to be joined by another Explorer-class sister ship, Le Jacques-Cartier, while Le Soleal heads to the northern Pacific. 

It’s been nearly 20 years since my first Kimberley expedition and in that time I have the destination grow seemingly exponentially in demand. New ships and operators are arriving all the time and not all are as well-prepared as Ponant. As with many expedition destinations, local knowledge and experience are a key. Ponant has secured stalwart Kimberley expedition leader, Mick Fogg, to oversee the entire operation. His name will be familiar to many former passengers, invariably praising his deep scientific and cultural knowledge coupled with an uncanny ability to impart it. 

“Numerous examples of indigenous Wandjina and Gwion Gwion rock art, the oldest known depictions of the human form on the planet, reveal a time capsule from man’s earliest occupation some 40,000 years ago, following the arrival of the first migrations out of Africa,” Mick tells us during his comprehensive briefing to a packed auditorium on board. 

Ashore, we can almost fathom these intricate and beautiful portraits as we admire the ancient frescos at Jar Island and Swift Bay and ponder the people who lived here many thousands of years ago. 

Our voyage is further enriched with such fascinating locations as Montgomery Reef, where an ancient terrestrial tableland appears to rise with the tide - Atlantis-like - from the sea while dozens of turtles congregate to feed on the nutrient-rich run-off.  Then, at Vansittart Bay, 400kms north of Broome, we inspect the remarkably preserved wreck of a wayward DC-3 which crash-landed after getting very lost en route to Darwin in 1942.

The Kimberley is world renowned for its spectacular waterfalls and we’re treated to the dramatic flows of King George Falls (Oomari in the language of the Balanggarra people)  in a Zodiac cruise along the river of the same name that is an expedition in itself. Those wanting to see the inaccessible Mitchell Falls, opt for a helicopter flight provided by an external operator.  TIP: f you are particularly keen on waterfalls in their full splendour, book early season departures.

And, as if we needed reminding, we are honoured to meet the traditional custodians who have nurtured this otherwise inhospitable land when we venture ashore at Freshwater Cove (Widgingarra Butt Butt). It’s here we have the chance to purchase original artworks from the family who welcome us to this secluded cove. 

We humans have certainly come a long way as a species, but here in the Kimberley, we are reminded that our timeline is but a dot on a very long scale and that when our flimsy bodies are returned to cosmic dust, these cliffs and escarpments will still be here.

What makes Ponant’s Explorer-class so special?

Taking architectural cues from the much-lauded Boreal-class, Ponant’s clever designers packed those features into a more compact superstructure while retaining benefits enjoyed by the ever-growing list of the cruise line’s repeat passengers.

Le Jacques Cartier is the newest in the six-vessel class, bringing the fleet to 13 vessels in total and ensuring that no nook or cranny of our knowable world goes unexplored. 

While the older vessels, like the Russian oceanographic ships can be credited with paving the way for modern polar tourism, not so with environmental credentials. It seems the post-pandemic world has a new appreciation for green and responsible travel and the Explorer-class are in the box seat to deliver.

The ship is totally zero-emission for wastewater of any kind and the fleet-wide use of Low Sulfur Marine Gasoil (LSMGO) means that harmful exhaust emissions such as nitrogen oxide are reduced by as much as 90 per cent. Other features include anchor-free positioning, thereby sparing potentially sensitive marine ecosystems.

Guests comforts include both formal and informal dining in either of two restaurants and a generous ‘Open Bar’ alcohol allowance is included in most fares. Of course, there is plenty of spa pampering (at extra cost), a gym and lots of open deck space to relax with a cocktail.

An innovation you will find on the Explorer-class is the Blue Eye underwater multi-sensory lounge designed to transport guests into a surreal world. Now admittedly, this feature is best appreciated in the crystal clear tropical waters rather than the Kimberley, but nevertheless, the superb digital audiovisual projections, vibrating “Body Listening Sofas” and otherworldly atmosphere can still be appreciated even if the view from the underwater windows can not.

As something of a tech geek, I found the retractable marina on the stern quite something else. Zodiac loading and unloading has often been a conversation point aboard the various expedition ships and this very clever installation allows virtually anybody to get in and out of these little vessels with ease. Even so, when the swell comes up, it is still necessary to deploy the old-fashioned gangway.


Ponant’s Kimberley season extends from April to October with their signature voyage, ‘Australia's Iconic Kimberley’ operating between Broome and Darwin and vice versa over 11 days and 10 nights. 2023 prices vary depending on departure date, but start from $10,280 per person.

PONANT’s Kimberley itineraries include classic must-see highlights as the Hunter River, King George Falls, Mitchell Falls, Montgomery Reef and Horizontal Falls, as well as numerous other rarely visited other destinations.

For full details and availabilities contact your travel agent or Ponant on 1300 737 178 or visit


This story was originally published in MiNDFOOD Magazine

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