When it comes to cruising the Kimberley, few would be more knowledgeable than Rob and Sue Wakefield, who have made it almost a home away from home in their cat Rampager. Nigel Ridgway asks them to share their experience.
The Kimberley region is attracting more and more attention in the travel media. You have only to open the weekend papers or check out television programmes featuring Australian adventure holidays and you will soon come across it.
"Doing" the Kimberley in a private cruising yacht is a bit different, and we yachties have a unique opportunity to cruise this area before it becomes over-commercialised and exploited. I have cruised the Kimberley twice myself and absolutely love it. While we were up in Darwin recently, we met up with some old cruising friends, Rob and Sue Wakefield, who have spent long periods in the Kimberley over the past six years - living aboard their lovely catamaran Rampager. Below is the resulting interview.
Q:It's now four times over the last six years that you've spent extended periods in the Kimberley. What's the attraction?
A: What we love about the Kimberley is its beautiful but rugged country - especially rivers like the Lynne, King George, Drysdale, Berkeley and Mitchell. Each is very different but beautiful in its own way. Our absolute favourite is the Berkley with its long walks, access to fresh water, white sandy beaches and lots of shells. Another reason we love the Kimberley is its flat seas and safe anchorages only half a day's sail away. You can be the only boat in the anchorage for days at a time, unlike some of the crowded anchorages on the east coast. It's still pristine (despite the numbers of tourists) with no sign of human life except for the signs erected by CALM (Conservation and Land Management)!
Q: People often talk of the growing crocodile population. What has been your experience of these fearsome reptiles?
A: Crocs are definitely on the increase, but we have had no threatening behaviour ourselves, although our friends on Dog On Cat had one big croc jump up and attack their wind generator! Don't leave your dinghy out at night Ð as you well know, Nigel! They are not scared of humans or boats.
Snakes can be a problem. A king brown climbed the anchor chain on Maverick Dream and was found on deck. He was quickly dispatched overboard. That happened to another boat too.
Q: You go to the Kimberley for months at a time Ð what sort of provisions would you recommend?
A: Having a cat, we can carry lots of tinned food like vegies, pate, butter, fruit and plenty of dried beans, peas, corn etc. We carry powdered milk and make our own yoghurt and bread. We also take lots of flat bread (Turkish) and cracker biscuits. We've found long-life camembert and brie cheese keeps well and doesn't need refrigeration until it's opened. We take a leg of ham so have plenty of cold meat. Sun-dried tomatoes are great. We have two big freezers on board so we take plenty of frozen meat, and we catch lots of fish to supplement the meat. We grow herbs like mint, basil and rocket. We take lots of instant mashed potato (which has improved a lot) and lots of small, whole pumpkins, sweet potatoes and unwashed potatoes because they last longer. For fresh fruit, we take granny smith apples and oranges Ð they last the longest.
Q: Have you found any new sources of fresh water (besides the popular King George River, Freshwater Bay and Silver Gull Creek)?
A: All the rivers we mentioned have fresh water. The Berkeley has one small waterfall towards the head, which has never run dry in six years. We also found water at Osborne Island on the beach in the Paspaley cyclone hole. We just dug on the beach and had fresh, sweet-tasting water running through the rocks.
Q: Have you noticed an increase/decrease in the number of private yachts cruising the Kimberley?
A: We don't think there's been an increase in private yachts - it's about the same as in 2001 when we started exploring.
Q: What about charter boats and commercial cruises?
A: There's been a big increase in those, but they only stay a few hours before moving on, so they don't annoy us too much. We were surprised to hear that there were 45 charter boats in the Kimberley this year - amazing!
Q: Fuel was a problem when we all went through in 2001. Has that situation eased?
A: Yes, there are more places to organise fuel like Truscott air base, Dog Leg Creek or alternatively you can arrange a fuel drop from a barge to a designated place if you pre-pay for it in Darwin. You can also pay Les French at Honeymoon Bay to take you into Kalumburu - that's quite an experience in itself!
Q: Have you found the pearling industry encroaching more into the popular bays?
A: There are definitely more pearl farms, but they leave plenty of room for charter boats and yachties to move through. We always call them on the radio as a courtesy, and they are always very polite. We've heard of instances where they have helped out yachties in trouble but this shouldn't be relied upon.
Q: How has the fishing been? Noticed any differences?
A: The fishing this season has been the best we've ever had - maybe because we've learned how to fish for barra! You do have to put the time in to be successful. We also catch heaps of salmon, trevally, mangrove jack and mud crabs.
Q: You must've met some characters over the years. Can you tell us about some?
A: Well, we met Chris and Jane who were squatting in a bay between Berkeley and King George River. They called it "Mad Man's Bay!" We caught up with them two years in a row. They had an old caravan, which was Jane's art studio (Jane has painted some beautiful Kimberley Another character was Bruce who we first met in 2001. He was living in Atlantis Bay, just near Elsie and Eric islands. He had a makeshift camp against a rock wall overlooking lovely freshwater pools. He grew his own vegies, shot wild cattle and caught fish. We met him again this year. He comes back regularly until he has to go back to work to make some more money.
By the way Ð all these people had permission from the Aboriginal Land Council.
Q: Can you recommend any new/interesting anchorages worth visiting?
A:This year we went up to Wyndham to Every year we seem to find new anchorages - for instance the Helby River was easy to access; no waiting for the tide and great fishing. The Drysdale River was lovely with lots of palm trees, great fishing and lots of fresh water. Another fascinating place was Gallery Bay. The Aboriginal rock art is stunning. You do need calm conditions to anchor because there is no protection from strong SE winds. Gallery Bay is between King George and the Berkeley.
Q: Do you have any general advice for newcomers considering cruising through the Kimberley?
A: You have to go with the tides and Also, if you have to leave an anchorage in a hurry it's better to have your dinghy secured.
Don't swim! This is most important. Some of the newer charter boats are letting their passengers swim - this could have potentially fatal results because crocs will attack humans. If yachties see charter boats allowing swimming, don't be tempted to dive in too. Horizontal Falls can be another danger - the flow is immense. One lady tourist died recently when she fell off a charter boat while going through the falls.
Nigel Ridgway and his wife, Aileen, live in Mandurah Quays in WA. They currently cruise local waters in a Spacesailer 24, but Nigel has dreams of returning to the ocean when he can finally retire. Aileen is not quite so sure!
Rampager's barra fishing and cooking tips
The best time to catch barramundi is one hour before high tide and one hour after and the best places are in entrances to creeks and rivers - and also around rocks, where you have to be extra careful to avoid snags. Our best lures are old silvery-grey in colour and quite scratched. A lot of people swear by live bait but we have had better luck with lures.
Cooking: barra is a great fish for cooking with lovely, firm white flesh and a very delicate flavour, so not much needs to be done to it. We enjoy fillets done on the Barbie wrapped in foil with a little lemon juice - don't overcook it. Time depends on thickness, of course. Rob's favourite recipe for barra is thin strips done in tempura butter and fried in a little olive oil - then served with a sprinkling of sea salt, sweet chilli sauce or lemon.
Navigating in the Kimberley
It is essential that you learn how to calculate the tides because the range is up to 10 metres in the Kimberley. Using the tides will assist tremendously and "pushing" them (unless forced to) results in slow going and high fuel consumption. If coming from the east, you'll have to cross the Gulf of Carpentaria and the Joseph Bonaparte Gulf - sailing from the west; you'll have to cross Bonaparte if continuing to Darwin. (Yachties lovingly refer to these as the "Gulf of Hysteria" and the "Blownapart Gulf" - for good reason!) Wait for the right weather.
The best time to go is after the wet (cyclone season) from April to October. Watch the highs down south - a strong high in the Bight means strong winds across the north, cold fronts down south cause a drop in wind speeds in the Kimberley, which is the best time to move.
Sue and Rob's recommended cruising guide is West Coast Cruising by Ross Brown, published by the Fremantle Sailing Club.
More on Sue and Rob and Rampager
Sue and Rob brought Rampager over to the west from Queensland and Rob did the fit-out himself. After a shakedown cruise to the north-west, where they encountered some dreadful weather off Exmouth, they sailed back to Perth. Rob then extended the hulls by adding sugar scoops. This has not only improved dinghy and swimming access, but also Rampager's performance. They left the west in 2001 and have lived and cruised on board ever since. Sue and Rob have retired onto the water, and their cat is now their home.
Rampager is a Fastback catamaran with an LOA of 13.9m, LWL of 12.5m, beam of 6.4 metres and draught of one metre. She is powered by a 47hp Yanmar diesel extended saildrive and carries 210 litres of fuel and 600 of water.