A helicopter safari in Kimberley, Australia

"Никогда нельзя знать заранее, как впоследствии обернутся обстоятельства." Артур Конан Дойл ©
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I can’t forget the Bungle Bungle. Not because of the funny name, but because it is one of the strangest places I have ever been. The Bungles are an isolated mountain range in the middle of the Kimberley, the vast wilderness in the north-west corner of Australia. They consist of dozens of egg-shaped domes, a kind of naturally wrought Angkor Wat, but striped red and black, like Dennis the Menace’s jumper. And the best of the Bungles comes at the end of a walk through the foothills of these geological tea cosies. There is a place where a waterfall has scooped out an immense cavity, like the nave of a church. This enormous space, flooded with light from above, is as cool as a fridge and as silent as a monastery. At the centre of it is a green algae-covered pool, opaque and lustrous like a marble floor. And as in some man-made structures such as St Paul’s in London, you can clearly hear someone speaking 300 yards away, on the far side of the natural auditorium. This was Cathedral Gorge. I sat here for a long while, like a reflective pilgrim at the end of a long journey.

  • A helicopter safari in Kimberley, Australia

    Above: the Bungle Bungle.

    Hardly anyone in the wider world even knew the Bungles were there until 1982, when a passing film crew spotted them from the air. I too caught my first sight of them from 2,000 feet; they were one of the highlights of a helicopter safari that took me all over the Kimberley, across endless terracotta desert where there is not the smallest sign of human habitation, along mangrove-lined rivers, above coastline where the offshore islands look like rustic scones on a cobalt-blue platter.

    The trip began in the little outback town of Kununurra, where I met up with Liam Dumbrell, who was to be pilot and guide for the six-day trip. The dawn departure was exhilarating. The helicopter lifted off the ground, swaying gently as if it was being winched up on a rope. The nose dipped, and it lurched forward, skimming across the airfield at head height before pausing, as if for breath, then rising sharply upwards into the sky. On that first hop we flew over sandalwood plantations and orchards of banana and mango, all the while keeping an eye out for ‘salties’ – saltwater crocodiles. ‘There is one up by the dam that holds back Lake Argyle,’ said Liam. ‘People call it The Gatekeeper.’ We saw a few salties in the shallows down below, looking like tadpoles in a pond. One was coolly eyeing up a wallaby on the riverbank: that little skippie had no idea of the mortal danger it was in.

  • A helicopter safari in Kimberley, Australia

    Above: The shallow seafloor of Joseph Bonaparte Gulf.

    The Kimberley is riven with deep, jagged gorges, and in places, where plateaus end, the rivers become spectacular cascades. We stopped at several, and flew over a few more, so that in the course of the trip I became a connoisseur of waterfalls. This was August, and every one of them was dry, but they were no less impressive for that. The first one we came to was the King George. We landed on its rocky lip, so close to the edge that the helicopter’s tail hung in the air. When we climbed out and looked down the canyon, the view was heartstopping. Sheer red cliffs, as deep as a skyscraper is tall, facing each other as if across a street in Midtown Manhattan. Then there was Eagle Falls, on the Drysdale River, which ziggurated down to a circular lake. The encompassing cliff was as round and sheer as the inside of an oil drum – one with the diameter of, say, the Royal Albert Hall. At the far end of the lake, where the river flowed out, there stood two natural towers of rock, like the barbican of some ruined fortress. Further on, at Mitchell Falls, it was hard to believe that the jagged chasm had been wrought by aeons of water: the crust of the earth appeared to have been torn apart like a fresh loaf.

  • A helicopter safari in Kimberley, Australia

    Above: Mud flats in Wyndham, traditional land of the Balanggarra Aboriginal people.

    In October or November, all these dry beds would be filled with thundering torrents. Everyone we met talked excitedly about the coming rainy season – the Big Wet – when the temperature soars way into the forties and the humid air is as thick as wallpaper paste. It was like they were talking about the advent of Christmas, which in a sense they were, because Christmas, the tropical midsummer, is when the Wet is at its wettest.

  • A helicopter safari in Kimberley, Australia

    Above: El Questro Homestead.

    The rivers of the Kimberley all bowl north to the Timor Sea. And at Cambridge Gulf, on the dunes above the coast, is the Berkeley River Lodge. There are no roads out this far – the only way to get to this fabulous hotel is by air or by sea. I was greeted at the entrance with iced tea and cold towels – very welcome after our flight into the sun – but the welcome was no less friendly when we encountered the other guests, who were positively evangelical about the place. ‘Was that you landing in the chopper? You are going to love it here.’ Someone remarked, ‘You look like you’re from Melbourne…’, and it turned out that they meant I was too warmly dressed for the tropical spring.

  • A helicopter safari in Kimberley, Australia

    Above: Kimberley Coastal Camp.

    In the afternoon I pootled up the Berkeley River in a tinnie – an aluminium power boat that looks as if it was hammered out of a baking tray. We chugged swiftly inland from the wide river mouth, and were soon passing between high cliffs. Here, on a mangrove-covered bank, I saw a saltie up close. It was rubbery, or maybe leathery, and as still as a discarded shoe. Its mouth was slightly agape, as if it had been frozen in a moment of surprise, and its back legs looked detachable, like the limbs of a doll. It was the most evil-looking creature I have ever set eyes on.

  • A helicopter safari in Kimberley, Australia

    Above: Kimberley Coastal Camp.

    The cabins at Berkeley River are anchored to the sand dunes like yachts in a bay. Each one has a window facing the sea, so you can hear the tide do its soporific hokey cokey with the shore throughout the night. I would have happily spent a week here, but after breakfast the next morning it was upward and onward. We soared over Faraway Bay, and traversed a series of looping promontories on our way to Cape Londonderry, the northernmost tip of Western Australia. Then we tracked southwest along the fringe of Admiralty Gulf, past the Osborn Islands with their off-shore pearl farms, into the bay of Port Warrender, where we spiralled down to the beach at Kimberley Coastal Camp.

  • A helicopter safari in Kimberley, Australia

    Above: Kimberley Coastal Camp.

    ‘There are two ways to arrive,’ said Tub White as he greeted me at the helipad. ‘Like a rockstar or a like a rockstar.’ ‘It’s a fine time to be here,’ said his wife Jules, giving me a hug as if I were her oldest and dearest friend. ‘The plants are flowering and the billabongs are full.’

    Life at Kimberley Coastal Camp centres on a big open-sided barn (‘the shed’), decorated with the flotsam of the ages: croc skulls and ghost-gum branches, sea charts and sunbleached shells, skillets and bush hats hung on posts. The heart of the place is the kitchen, where Jules spends much of her time. She is a Sydneysider, and used to be a session singer, working with some of the best in the business. She is also a tremendous cook – you can tell that even before you sample her food by the easy way she handles a paring knife or cranks dough through the pasta maker, humming tunefully to herself as she works, always humming.

  • A helicopter safari in Kimberley, Australia

    Above: Kimberley Coastal Camp.

    I offered to sous-chef, but Jules had it covered. ‘It’s funny how often people ask to help, though,’ she said. ‘I don’t know why.’ I asked Jules what brought her here, and she nodded at the tangerine disk of the setting sun. ‘This is perhaps the most remote corner of Australia, and we are the only people who don’t close up in the Wet,’ she said. ‘You should see it then. When a storm rolls in over the water it’s like armies waging war in the distance.’ Before dinner we all helped ourselves to a cold stubbie from the fridge, then sat down with our hosts to a meal of crab ravioli with saffron sauce (each fat pasta cushion topped with a tiger prawn the size of a meathook), barramundi with snowpeas and a chilli tomato sauce, and a raspberry and dark-chocolate pudding.

  • A helicopter safari in Kimberley, Australia

    Above: Kimberley Coastal Camp.

    I rose at dawn, because Tub was taking me fishing. Liam the pilot came along, and he turned out to be a practised sea-angler, priming all the rods with bait and acting as Tub’s first-mate. Tub was in his element – an archetypal Aussie bloke, he’s eternally cheerful, prefers his shirts not to be ironed, capable of fixing anything mechanical. Within minutes of casting a line he had caught a queenfish, followed by several fingermark bream – ‘fingeries’, as Liam and Tub called them. After an hour’s easy angling we headed for a little island called Malcolm. It was still only 11am, but we were ready for lunch. Once on shore, Tub dipped the cleaned fish in seasoned flour and fried it at the water’s edge. Nothing could have been simpler or more delicious – to sit on the sand, plate on knees, eating slabs of pearly-white fish hot from the pan.

  • A helicopter safari in Kimberley, Australia

    Above: Kimberley Coastal Camp.

    I stayed two nights with Tub and Jules, and I don’t know when I have been sadder to leave a place. They pull off the trick that hotels the world over claim to have mastered, which is to make you feel completely at home. Once they had faded to waving dots below us, we headed inland towards the Mitchell River, where Liam had a surprise in store for me. He put the helicopter down in a gap between some spindly trees. ‘There’s something here I want to show you.’ He led me through the sharp-edged grass towards some rocks. Along the way we realised we were all covered in biting green ants, and had to spend a frantic minute hopping around and brushing the vicious little critters off each other’s backs. Once that comical drama was over, Liam ushered me through a crack in the rocks. Just beyond, in a high overhang, were some truly spellbinding paintings: a row of lanky figures, each about a yard tall. They seemed to be dancing, their backs were arched and some of them had arms raised, as if pogo-ing in a kind of ecstasy. These were Bradshaw rock paintings – the Eurocentric name for what is claimed to be the oldest category of cave art in Australia. Estimates of their age vary, but they could be more ancient than any Egyptian hieroglyphs, any Lascaux beasts. Yet here they stood, those prehistoric dancers, as fresh as ever they were – and not in a museum or a national park, just on a forgotten rock in the middle of nowhere.

  • A helicopter safari in Kimberley, Australia

    Above: Kimberley Coastal Camp, whose central shed is filled with books, shells, fishing equipment and sundowner spots.

    My last overnight stop was at El Questro, a splendidly chic lodge that presaged our return to civilisation. The house is beautiful. There is a big lobby, paved with red flagstones and flanked by a bar where guests can help themselves to drinks. It feels like a relaxed Argentinian hacienda, which is not so surprising as this is also a working cattle station. We landed on the front lawn – another superstar entrance – just in time for evening drinks. At El Questro, all guests gather for aperitifs before sitting down to supper at a single long table. It was like being at an excellent dinner party with new friends – and once again the food was outstanding: seared weathervane scallops with braised pork belly; zaatar lamb backstrap with herb polenta; chai-pistachio pannacotta with mango sorbet.

  • A helicopter safari in Kimberley, Australia

    The last leg took us to the Bungles, then over cracked and rumpled terrain between Purnululu National Park and the wide expanse of Lake Argyle. Now there were human traces on the landscape: the Great Northern Highway, an unwavering pencil-line ruled on the ground; and an open-cast diamond mine, which was a deep cone-shaped hole on the face of the earth. We also saw fire scars – blackened patches covering hundreds of square miles, and looking more like bruises than scars. These too are manmade, the result of controlled burning. Further along we saw live fires, and ragged ribbons of grey-white smoke rising into the air. The hot air made the chopper jump and wobble, though we were more than a mile away from the flames.

  • A helicopter safari in Kimberley, Australia

    Above: the Berkeley River Lodge, on the edge of the Timor Sea.

    Then, at last, Kununurra airfield, where the adventure had begun. I don’t know that I have ever travelled through landscapes more stark or more stunning. And to do it all by helicopter – to look from on high at the hypnotic patterns, which resemble fern-leaves or fractals, that form where mangroves bloom on the floodplains; to be deposited on deserted mountaintops like an astronaut arriving on a new planet; to fly in looping curves over still-uncharted bights and coves – it was more than magical. In six days we’d covered 800 nautical miles, about 1,500km of parched wilderness. And as Liam gingerly guided the helicopter earthward for the last time, a few drops of rain – the first heralds of the Big Wet – splashed emphatically on the chopper’s windshield.

    The six-night HeliSpirit Luxury Helicopter Safari costs about £10,500 per person, including all meals, drinks, private helicopter, accommodation and tours. helispirit.com.au. For more information on the Kimberley visit australia.com and westernaustralia.com.

    Scroll down for more pictures of the Kimberley…

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  • A helicopter safari in Kimberley, Australia

    Lake Argyle, Western Australia’s largest freshwater man-made reservoir.

  • A helicopter safari in Kimberley, Australia

    King George River and its sheer red cliffs, home to the thunderous King George Falls.

  • A helicopter safari in Kimberley, Australia

    The magnificent Cockburn Range in El Questro Wilderness Park.

  • A helicopter safari in Kimberley, Australia

    A river in the Kimberley.