Boasting 12,000 kilometres of craggy coastline and with more than 2,500 island archipelagos, remote and fascinating, the Kimberley must be seen from the sea. So say John and Jane Edwards, whose extraordinary nine-month voyage has taken them from the east coast of Australia up and over to the west.
View the Kimberley Experience Video – 3:22 min duration
Having logged more than 5,000 nautical miles since October last year, John looks back and is amazed at the enormity of their trip, which for a long-time sailor is saying something. His maritime adventuring began in the early 80s in Sydney, when he bought a half-built yacht with some rugby-playing university friends. They finished it off and sailed through the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. John has owned sail and motor yachts ever since.
While one of many over the years, this last voyage has been one of the more memorable.
“5,280 nautical miles to be precise,” he says, speaking from Fremantle where his third Voodoo, a Riviera 50 Enclosed Flybridge, is now berthed. From the Gold Coast to the Whitsundays, the Barrier Reef and Cooktown, Thursday Island and into the Gulf of Carpentaria, through the Arafura and Timor Seas and finally, the magnificent Kimberley.
John travelled all eight legs, at times flying back to Perth to take care of business, Jane cherry-picked her trips.
“I’d never before seen the Kimberley from the coast. It’s so rugged, so inaccessible. I loved all the river systems and outer islands,” says Jane, who is originally from Perth.
Over millennia, monsoons have stripped the soil from the north-west edge of the Mitchell Plateau. Red-rock bluffs plunge into its vast river system.
It’s an iconic Australian scene, ideal for inviting friends and family aboard. Unlike some of the harsher top-end environs, the Kimberley offers croc-free snorkelling, fishing bonanzas and trips ashore to hike through mangroves and gorges, to explore freshwater canyons and waterfalls.
The luxury of Voodoo also played a hand. In fact, when they commissioned Voodoo, they did so with this trip in mind and knowing they’d have plenty of visitors.
John took one look at the Riviera 50 Enclosed Flybridge at the Sydney International Boat Show and says it was “night and day” compared to other offers.
“It was an obvious choice. We were looking for more features and this Riviera has a better cabin configuration, better and more modern ideas.”
The Riviera 50 Enclosed Flybridge is known for its considered design; it features open-plan living and has an aft galley which overlooks the cockpit. As Jane points out, you don’t mind chopping veggies when you’ve got a glorious view.
John and Jane especially appreciated the design of one of the three staterooms: a twin room with side by side beds instead of bunks, which served perfectly for their teenage son and friend to play video games alongside each other. In addition, the 50 Enclosed Flybridge features a master suite, VIP stateroom and two designer bathrooms.
“Even with lots of people aboard, there was always room to spread out. And it’s always social on a boat. You have this opportunity to get to know people, to spend time together. In the evenings we played lots of card games, lots of five hundred!”
Naturally, wilderness won the hand and for the Edwards, Montgomery Reef was the trump card. Situated offshore between Camden Sound and Collier Bay, it is regarded by Sir David Attenborough as one of the greatest natural wonders of the world. It is 50 nautical miles long, spans some 400 square kilometres and has a tidal range of up to 10 metres. At high tide the reef is completely submerged, as the tide drops, water pours off causing waterfalls and exposing mangrove forests, blue holes and deep river-like channels. It’s this tidal variation which draws in migratory wading birds and abundant marine life.
“It’s amazing,” says Jane. “Nothing compares to the life we saw there. Sharks, turtles, dugongs, you name it.”
John admits it was a privilege to have experienced the Kimberley on their terms, on their boat, and not without a bit of local knowledge to boot. Fortuitously, the Edwards’ son is friends with those at the helm of True North Adventure Cruises – real pioneers of the area. Their son Jackson joined them for a month, giving John a break from his navigational duties.
“Jackson came with waypoints and lots of navigational knowledge to find our way through rivers in areas where there are no charts, no buoys or markers, where there are ten-metre tides and seven-knot currents, unchartered areas we would have otherwise avoided.”
So how does one approach 5,285 nautical miles through Australia’s most unforgiving regions without the aid of a professional skipper?
“I chose to manage this myself; it was a real bucket list item for me, a personal challenge. It required meticulous planning months in advance and then all the way around.”
The Riviera 50 Enclosed Flybridge is known for its fuel efficiency and quiet twin Volvo D11 IPS 950 turbo diesel engines, each with 725 horsepower.
With Voodoo’s power-to-weight ratio, in the Northern Territory John calculated a cruising range of 700 nautical miles. To be able to reach ports he’d identified in advance, Voodoo carried an additional 1,500 litres of fuel in inflatable bladders, adding 300 nautical miles range. In the Kimberley, John prearranged to resupply fuel at sea, a service typically provided for pearling farmers.
John recalls one “hairy moment” trawling through the reefs in north Queensland while driving, steering and towing the dingy.
“We hooked onto a big Spanish mackerel and the rope got caught in the prop and took an engine out, in the middle of the channel with three-to-four knots of current. We had to limp back to Lizzard Island and dive on the prop to sort it out.”
He had full confidence in Voodoo’s ability to handle extreme offshore conditions, including their “fare share of poor weather, strong winds and big seas.”
The far north with its critters and crocs and questionably chartered rivers kept John on his toes.
“You have to have your wits about you, even on a big boat. We had drills for different events so that everyone understood. Crocodile awareness was a constant rigour.”
The Edwards are currently contemplating their next bucket list item, potentially a larger Riviera to cruise through the South Pacific’s Melanesian islands of Vanuatu, Fiji, Nouméa and the Solomon Islands. For John, it would mean coming full circle.
“I’d like to do that trip again but this time with a bit more style and a bit more money. Instead of warm beer, enjoy an ice-cold gin and tonic.