Angus Stewart takes a cruise through the top end to explore one of Australia’s great wildernesses and the awesome diversity of plants that live there.
The Kimberleys have a particular place in Australian culture as one of the great wilderness areas interspersed with the occasional outback cattle station outpost. Most Australians know names like Kununurra, Ord River, Fitzroy Crossing and the Bungle Bungles. And of course, we have all seen the spectacular images of these remarkable red dirt landscapes, amazing Australian history in the form of Aboriginal art and cool, oasis-like gorges.
Whilst the visual impact of The Kimberleys is undeniable, it is the atmosphere of the country that is hard to adequately convey in images and words. A trip through this rugged region leaves you with a further dimension of experiences, such as the dawn chorus of hundreds of bird species each morning. Or the ambience of the giant bottle-shaped Boab trees standing like silent sentinels over the hillsides at dusk, as the last rays of sunlight disappear. Not to mention sunset at Cable Beach, Broome with a camel train meandering in front of the surf.
The Kimberleys have a totally different feel than the southern parts of Western Australia. Even though many elements of the landscape are similar, such as the time worn, rugged rolling hills; the climatic differences are what differentiate the Kimberleys from most of Australia. The subtropical monsoonal climate, with its totally opposite wet and dry seasons, combines with the ancient landscape and its fauna and flora to create a place like no other on earth.
The seasonal ebb and flow of water is key to understanding the dynamics of nature in the Kimberleys. For instance, the start of the dry season triggers the Boab trees to lose their foliage, which in turn gives way to flowering of these amazing plants. Australia only has a handful of trees that are deciduous and it is significant that most of them live here in the Kimberley along with the remarkable Boab. The Kimberley rose (Brachychiton viscidulum), with its vivid pink/red bell-shaped flowers is another spectacular example. Environmental signals like these told the Aboriginal people when other important events were likely to be happening. They identified 6 different seasons that have little relationship to the 4 seasons that really belong to a European view of the environment.
In the Kimberley you can throw the concept of four seasons out the window. Plants flower with no apparent rhyme or reason if one wants to try and relate it to the concepts of spring and autumn in temperate climates. However, it all makes eminent sense if you explore the idea of the 6 seasons that the Aboriginal people used to interpret the environmental rhythms of the Top End.
The rivers, gorges and waterfalls are like arteries delivering the vital life force of moisture to the body of the Kimberleys. While the lakes are like the heart and lungs, teeming with activity and vital to the functioning of the whole that is the Kimberleys. A cruise down the Ord or any other top end river is a fantastic way to experience some of the unique wildlife from crocodiles to the many bird species that being their special magic to the environment from the Jesus bird that appears to walk on water, to the many large water birds and raptors that circle in the thermal air currents.
The gorges are a stunning visual feature that is a highlight of any visit to the Kimberleys, with the ancient geology creating awesome natural swimming pools that are particularly inviting (especially the ones that are not home to freshwater crocodiles, which are apparently not interested in humans anyway as it turns out). The grandeur of these places is simply awe inspiring, and is one of the best ways to experience the nature of this unique region.
Generally speaking, the classic drifts of wildflowers found in the south west of Western Australia are rarely seen in the Kimberleys. However, the odd busy of Mulla Mulla (Ptilotus exaltatus) and pinky-red Bachelor’s Buttons (Gomphrena sp.) are common and provide a wildflower ‘fix’ for enthusiasts like yours truly.
Other beautiful or interesting plants that feature include the white dragon tree (Sesbania sp.) the unfortunately named cockroach bush (Senna notabilis), kapok bush (Cochlospermum fraseri), Grevillea wickhamii, G pteridifolia, and the silver-leafed grevillea (G. refracta).
Eucalypts of many sorts are an ever present feature of the flora worth the bright orange flowers of the Woollybutt (Eucalyptus miniata) and the red of the Swamp Bloodwood (Corymbia ptychocarpa) being the most spectacular. Bloodwood trees (Corymbia species), close relatives of the eucalypts, add their gnarly character to the landscape, whilst iconic eucalypts such as the Coolibah and River red gum create iconic Australian landscapes draping the waterways, and provide nesting hollows for some of the beautiful birds of the Kimberley.
The Boab tree (Adansonia gregorii) is, without doubt, the iconic plant feature of the Kimberleys. The amazing silhouettes of these trees against the morning and evening light are a truly memorable part of the Kimberleys experience. The closest relatives of the Boab are in Africa and Madagascar where they are known as Baobab trees. Indeed, it is something of a botanical mystery as to how the Boab tree ended up on the other side of the Indian Ocean, and there is a theory that the ancestors of the Aborigines may have brought them, perhaps as a source of food and fibre. The tree certainly holds an important cultural significance as well, and a carved Aboriginal Boab fruit is a unique souvenir of the Kimberleys.
A journey through the Kimberleys, one of the world’s most ancient landscapes is a truly unforgettable Australian experience that I would not miss for quids.
Angus will be heading to the Kimberleys for Ross Tours once more this September, on the sold out Top End tour 2016. And you can come with us in 2017 by registering at Ross Tours enquiries or calling Ros or Royce on 1300 233 200
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