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The Kimberley by Sea


Inspired by an Aussie TV legend, Jack Murphy heads off to explore the remote and rugged Top End in an epic adventure by land, sea and air.

The MV Cannon is one of the smoothest charter operations on Australian waters

The north-western tip of Australia is remote, wild and beautiful. Well, that’s what Malcolm Douglas had me believing after watching his many videos. He traversed the Kimberley with his dog Boondie, a cameraman and his trusty alloy boat. The legend of the Kimberley was imprinted on me – I had to do it. My fair-haired partner Millie and I headed west to the land of red dust, towering cliffs and fat barra...

Before you get the chance to pull out the camera to snap a gobsmacking gorge, there are long drives along corrugated roads to navigate. In the wet season, there’s a good chance the main route has washed out or a causeway has collapsed after torrential rain. In Kununurra – the gateway to the Kimberley – the average annual rainfall is 790mm.

Spectacular waterways

This year, as we were packing our finest Gold Bombers (barramundi lures) into dry weatherproof packs, it pelted down a sock-sodden 1072mm. It was the wettest season since the 1960s! On the upside, waterfalls would be flowing and the gorges swollen. On the downside, it’d be a slog all the way.

So we hatched a cunning plan to avoid all those soggy socks and trousers. It involved a highly capable 4x4, a plane that floats, a chopper and a luxury live-aboard boat – just to be on the safe side.


The Grumman G-73 Mallard touches down

It’s 4am at Darwin Airport. Inside a dimly lit hangar at a corner of the runway is a Grumman G-73 Mallard amphibious aircraft. It might be named after a duck, but this twin-prop aircraft with its massive 20m wingspan and classic 1940s lines is a flying boat. Most days it transports workers to the Paspaley pearl farms, but today it will be freighting us to the west coast of the Northern Territory to rendezvous with our mothership. I try to help by sucking in my gut as they weigh all our gear, then we’re up and away.

Millie had barely fired off a selfie before we were soaring across the coastal fringes west of Darwin, spotting crocs in the rapidly flowing river systems. I picture big barra lying just below the surface in the eddies swirling around the mangrove-lined banks. Less than an hour later, the Grumman loses altitude, tips a wing and circles the MV Cannon like, well, a mallard coming in to nest for the night. This is the mothership, a 75ft custom-built live-aboard – our home for the next week.

Disembarking the Grumman G-73 Mallard

The pilot lines up a clean strip of water before lowering the belly of the behemoth on to the tannin stained river, the bow wave soaking the rear windows. Landing on water is a strange sensation, louder but smoother than a runway. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have sweaty palm thoughts of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River at that moment. We motor towards the Cannon and two tenders come out to meet us. The pilot shuts down the engines and cracks open the rear exit and a wave of warm, humid air hits us in the face as a sunburnt head pops inside and says, “G’day guys, welcome to paradise!”


The mighty MV Cannon

Ah, if Malcolm could see me now. Back in the day, he slept in a dusty old swag and cooked fish on an open campfire. We’re being treated to five-star dinners, three times a day and an air-conditioned bedroom – plus Aiden, our personal guide in standard NT garb of tan Columbia shirt, boardies and polarised sunnies. All up, the boat accommodates eight paying guests, six staff and a BCF store worth of tackle. Aiden has the unenviable task of teaching Millie how to cast.

We jump into the tinny, fasten our sunnies, reverse hats and snake up the river at full speed, soaring past mangroves that are choking trees into submission. Around every bend is a double-page spread out of National Geographic: saltwater crocs lurking, sea eagles soaring and jabirus wading peacefully before being startled by the thrum of our aluminum hull.

Small barra came thick and fast

Bursting through the forest canopy onto the floodplain, dense greenery gives way to grassy flatlands punctuated with tributaries feeding the main body of water. The water is clear and we snag a few small ones, Aiden sensing my relief at notching a barra on my belt. We double back to the river mouth for a shot at the elusive metre-long fish. We work the edges of the sandbank near the entrance where medium-sized barra and bluenose salmon fight for attention among the squadrons of salty crocs. Without a canopy, we feel the full fury of the blazing sun. One big saltwater croc joins the frenzy, dragging a 5kg threadfin salmon to the muddy bank and chomping down like it was a chicken nugget.

Millie bags her first barra

When Aiden calls prime time for casting lures into the river’s shaded feeder creeks, Millie, her white skin now a shade of pink, agrees. It looks like barra heaven – a mess of snags where a small tributary feeds black, nutrient-rich runoff into the main channel, creating a back-eddy like a cup of freshly stirred Milo. The barra are hungry and we both hook 70cm fish at the same time. Millie forgets about her sunburn for a while as we high-five.

Egos and eskies filled to the brim, we return to the mothership, where our fellow cruisers are regaling each other with fishy stories. We’re greeted by a vast platter of mud crabs – which proves to be just the entrée…


A mud crab destined for the dinner table

The following days are a blur of beautiful scenery and barramundi scales – each session better than the last. The sea is a glass-off, so we hit the offshore reefs in tinnies. Fat fingermark and juicy jewfish are destined for the dinner table, but the conversation turns to metre-long barra. Nobody has snagged one yet. Not until fishing guide Metre Mike rocks up. Mike’s from Sydney’s Northern Beaches, but spends seven months a year guiding on the Cannon.

A friendly local

The next morning with Mike starts like most other days, casting lures into snags and feeder creeks. Spying a good-looking spot he’d never fished before, we approach silently to see a barra tailing around the cluster of algae-covered logs. I cast into the honey hole and it’s immediately snuffled by a nice fish. Within a few moments, the line is peeling off at right angles. A huge swirl on the surface exposes the thick shoulders and massive paddle tail of a metre barra. An epic battle ensues, a 10-minute tug-o’-war, the fish running the line over countless submerged branches.

We finally get the 110cm beast into the net and onto the boat before being released after a quick photo. This was my first metre barra, and the only one landed on the trip. Belt notched.


Heading home via choppa

The epic Cannon adventure is almost over and it’s time to head home. We’re 100km west of Darwin when Captain Ben Sambrooks turns the ignition key to fire up the big 820HP M.T.U diesel engine… and nothing happens. The starter motor has packed it in so we call in air support. A chopper will have to fly the broken parts into town for repairs and the skipper decides this is a good opportunity to ferry a few passengers back to Darwin. I opt to stay on the boat – might as well keep fishing, eh?

However, Millie jumps at the opportunity of a heli-ride home and in no time is back in a springy hotel bed in Darwin, watching The Bold and the Beautiful and eating Nacho Cheese Doritos.


Doesn't get much better than a Kimberley sunset

It’s been an epic adventure – bookended with a grand seaplane entrance and evacuation by chopper a week later. The Cannon makes it home late the next night and the crew calls for a celebration. It’s customary that every charter ends with a drink called Captain’s Blood. It’s a mixture of Captain Morgan, soda water and bitters that sounds nice, but actually tastes like brake fluid. I pretend to enjoy it as the crew become more animated, the barra grow a few centimetres and the back slaps get harder.

More Outdoor Adventures

- Need a place to stay? El Questro Wilderness Park at the eastern end of the Kimberley combines luxury and adventure.

- Discover even more things to do in the NT with these 10 weekend adventures around Darwin.

- While in the NT, why not explore Arnhem Land too? Nhulunbuy is an outdoor lover's paradise. 

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