Long Range Excursion: Kimberley Coastal, 2006

On 4 September 2006, twenty members of the Naturalists’ Club boarded a boat in thick mist from the beach at Gantheume Point in Broome, for one of the most exciting destinations in Australia – the Kimberley Coast. The previous night over dinner at the Continental Hotel, members had a final briefing from Kevin Coate. His main message for the 14-day excursion was to expect the unexpected. From the start this is how it was – highlights too numerous to mention just kept occurring.

Our expedition vessel, Odyssey, was a spacious new 24-metre catamaran fitted with comfortable, roomy cabins ideally suited our needs. Accompanying the Odyssey was Homer, a purpose built support-tender with powerful engines to ensure everyone traveled safely together on various excursions. It was a far cry from the Club’s first long-range excursion along the Kimberley Coast in 1984, when the availability of charter boats was virtually non-existent. The only boat available then was a Geraldton cray-boat, very basic and without comforts, accompanied by small 4-metre dinghies with outboard motors that were forever breaking down.

There was a good age range within the group – from 11-year old Matthew Garstone to Mary Hancock on her 47th trip with Kevin. To further enrich the group’s experience, apart from Kevin Coate with his regional knowledge and natural history of the coast, were: Mark Cowan – specializing in reptiles and mammals, Loisette Marsh – specializing in marine invertebrates, and Otto Mueller – specializing in insects. As well, there was Natalie Millar, a student from Murdoch University studying marine biology. Mary Hancock and Broome naturalist, Dave Dureau, were constantly in search of plants, of which there were many in flower. Elsa Foy, also a Broome resident, could supply local information (and fish). Skipper Dave Abbott was formerly a wildlife officer attached to Fisheries and there wasn’t much his mate, Kim Bailey, didn’t know about fishing. Each evening on the ‘alfresco’ deck discussions were held on the days sightings, followed by a briefing on the next days programme.

The annual Humpback Whale migration was still underway and whales were frequently seen throughout the trip. A very large Hammer-head Shark made a brief appearance, as we dropped anchor at the Lacepede Islands to look at the huge seabird-breeding colonies (brown boobies and lesser frigates) inhabiting them at this time of year. Homer was used to transport the group ashore to Middle Lacepede Island, where an albino Brown Booby was seen along with an unusually large number of Brown Quail. At dusk on West Lacepede Island, it was estimated that between 10,000 and 15,000 Roseate Tern were congregated on a sand bank and many more flocks were arriving as we departed.

In order to make the best of day-light hours, we travelled over-night to the Sale River, where there are many attractions, not the least being the scenic cruise upstream from its mouth, along mangrove shorelines broken by thickly vegetated patches of rain forest sheltering under cliff faces. Bombax trees (Bombax ceiba) and the so called Kimberley Rose (Brachychiton viscidulus) were flowering magnificently. We spent some time ashore at a swamp of magnificent tall paper bark trees (Melaleuca leucadendra) with climbing maiden hair fern (Lygodium sp.) winding up to the lower branches. In a nearby stream were masses of large ferns (Blechnum sp).

At anchor in the upper reaches of the Sale River, some chose to sleep ashore over-night, while others preferred the comforts of the boat. The advantage for those camped ashore, was spot-lighting and an early start the following morning to explore upstream from the tidal section. During the two days at Sale River we explored the beautifully vegetated fresh water creek (referred to as ‘Barbeque Creek’ by Koolan Islanders, who often camped there). Everyone enjoyed bathing in the clear spring-fed pools, away from the menace of Saltwater Crocodiles. Mark Cowan was able to locate, and talk about, Common Planigale, Kimberley-rock Rat, Short-eared Rock-wallaby and a variety of frogs and lizards. Margaret Larke photographed a large Olive Python, lying in wait in a pool for its unsuspecting victim to come in for water.

Access was made to Montgomery Reef on the northern side rather than the more popular southern side, in order to visit Montgomery Island more easily on the incoming tide. Loisette Marsh quickly organized helpers to search for various types of marine life. In pools at the top of the reef platform were many Hawksbill Turtles, Green Turtles and Black Tip Reef Shark. We were lucky to see the northern-form of the Blue-ringed Octopus, and while returning to the boat there was a close encounter (a little too close for some) with a large Sea Snake. Matthew Garstone had never had experiences like this before and was enjoying every minute.

When approaching Montgomery Island in Homer, we saw Flatback Turtles, and disturbed large numbers of Pelican and migratory waders from the shoreline. A flock of about 60 Grey Plover with distinctive black marking under the wings would most likely have just arrived from the northern hemisphere. It was surprising to find rodents (probably Grassland Melomys – Melomys burtoni) on the island, particularly as there are no previous records of mammal occurrence. Otto Mueller found a number of beautiful large yellow and black Jewell Beetles on mangrove leaves, and there was the abandoned egg of a Pied Oystercatcher on the beach.

As we rounded Montgomery Island, on the bank of one of the mangrove-lined creeks, we briefly spotted a huge Saltwater Crocodile which, on our approach, quickly slid into the murky water. Two small islands visited on Montgomery Reef had large numbers of Rufous-night Heron, Eastern Reef Egret and Pied Cormorant roosting. A pair of Eastern Reef Egret with young in the nest was within 20 metres of a nesting Osprey. On a third island, stromatolites (Conophyton sp.) with a distinctive cone-shaped form and dating back more than 1,800 million years, were the subject of much discussion.

On Champagny Island were relics of a wartime Loran Base, established by the Americans during World War II. At the rusting remains of the condenser that provided freshwater for the base, Kevin related how he had met the former operator, Dimitri Hadzi, who later became a world famous sculptor. Dimitri was a young general infantryman with the American Army stationed on Champagy Island as a radio technician. It was during this period, while reflecting on his life, that he decided to take up art.

The itinerary was planned to take advantage of the extremely low tides, as few people have seen the fantastic area of exposed reef with its array of colourful corals (Gordonian), sponges and variety of marine life at Naturalists Beach on Naturalists Island [named after the Club]. Matthew picked up a large Spider Crab with barnacles attached to its claw, and Cowrie shells were seen under upturned coral. Several species of colourful starfish were plentiful, and a number of small fish stranded by the quickly ebbing tide were also observed.

Back from the beach and extending well up the sloping gully under rain forest canopy, were hundreds of active burrows of the Pale Field Rat (Rattus tunneyi). Everyone was able to get a close look at the rat and its distinctive foot pads. While searching around their warrens, Mark was lucky enough to have a Rainbow Pitta land beside him.

From the summit of Naturalists Island the views were stunning out toward the Hunter River and back over Prince Frederick Harbour. However, the climb was not uneventful – Ken Allen twisted an ankle putting him out of action for several days, and Glyn Beaver over-balanced on a rock and sported an impressive black eye, the focus of many cameras.

In St George Basin near the entrance to the Prince Regent River, St Patrick Island was visited for early morning bird-watching. Then taking advantage of the still low tides, we walked the reef extending out from nearby St Andrew Island. It was interesting to see large numbers of exposed mushroom and slipper corals. Later we went to an Aboriginal ceremonial site with unusual stone arrangements in the shape of a snake. A feature of this trip was Aboriginal art sites.

The Odyssey anchored over night north of St Andrew Island in St George Basin, next to a small unnamed island on which were an impressive cluster of small boab trees. There were magnificent views of Mt Trafalgar and Mt Waterloo to the north, and Python Cliffs and St Patrick Island to the south. At dusk and dawn we enjoyed reflections of surrounding hills in a mirror-like sea. In the early light of dawn the only ripple disturbing the surface of the water was from three Saltwater Crocodiles that had kept tabs on us during the night.

There was an added advantage in having Homer: to zip upstream to King Cascades, several hours earlier than the larger vessel could have sailed. After a refreshing freshwater shower under the cascades from the bow of the boat, those who were able, waded through gooey mud and up a sandstone cliff to the top of the falls. A fun time was had relaxing and swimming in the crystal clear water of a large pandanus-lined pool. Further upstream were a series of other small pools and waterfalls. Those left on Homer and unable to manage the climb, were taken by the crew to view other points of interest.

A most enjoyable two days were spent at Camp Creek – another place of beauty off the Prince Regent River, where there was another opportunity for those wishing to camp ashore. Those returning to the Odyssey anchored in the Prince Regent River, spotted a Saltwater Crocodile swimming across Camp Creek with a Short-eared Rock-wallaby clenched firmly in its jaws. The unfortunate rock wallaby appeared as if it was still alive.

From base camp we were surprised at the abundance of flowering wildflowers in marshy areas. Pink Stylidium sp, yellow Utricularia chrysantha and mauve Thysanotus chinensis were common, as was the white Tree Feather-flower (Verticordia cunninghamii). Wild mango trees (Buchanania obovata) in full blossom attracted numbers of very vocal White-lined Honeyeaters. Scats around rocks indicated a Northern Quoll presence, and much to our delight Mark showed us a female with six small young attached in a pseudo pouch.

Relaxing around a campfire is an integral part of the Kimberley scene. Elsta Foy, who lives in the Kimberley and has many Aboriginal family connections in Broome and Derby, kept us entranced well into the night with stories of Aboriginal people and her early nursing experiences in the Kimberley

On the return trip back to Broome, time was spent looking at the 1864 Camden Settlement ruins, where Europeans first attempted to settle the Kimberley. At that time it was a place of much heartache and despair and settlers abandoned it within the year. It was easy to see why.

At Langgi a fascinating array of eroded sandstone rocks related in Aboriginal mythology, to Wandjinas killed in battle and an important Sea Wandjina named Namarali. Kevin led a walk some distance from the beach to see an interesting pink flowering water-lily (Ondinea purpurea) growing in a freshwater pool, at the southern extension of its range.

At anchor in Talbot Bay, two 3 metre Tawny Nurse Sharks swam to the duckboard of the boat, for a head-scratch and fish handout. These impressive slow-moving sharks are commonly encountered in sheltered bays along the coast. The Horizontal Waterfalls were negotiated, and the still waters of Cyclone Creek (a safe anchorage during cyclones for boats from the nearby cultured-pearl farm at Slug Island) were explored.

Cruising south past Koolan Island there was a new wharf under construction for loading iron ore. A final interlude in Buccaneer Archipelago, before continuing through Whirlpool Passage, was at Crocodile Creek opposite Cockatoo Island, where we swam in freshwater beneath a waterfall.

It was agreed by all that it was a fabulous trip (for Mary, the best ever), with mild temperatures and calm seas – so typical of the Kimberley coast at this time of year. Our thanks to Nick and Lorie Linton, owners of Odyssey, for the wonderful deal they gave the Club – and to the crew who went out of their way to make the trip so memorable.

Kevin Coate