The Kimberley has been called Australia's last frontier. This is true wilderness, a vast, empty, rugged chunk in the far north of Western Australia. Dry in winter and impassable in summer after one of the regular cyclones passes through, it is a region of endless bush punctuated with enormous bulbous boab trees, rough rocky ridges, a lonely but beautiful island-strewn and croc-infested coastline, and a surprising number of running rivers with long, life-giving waterholes. The dry, lightly wooded, savanna scenery calls to mind parts of Africa or India.
It's the rivers and gorges that make the Kimberley special even at the end of the dry season. It often seems like a miracle, after a long dusty drive, to find a broad sparkling pool fringed by paperbark trees and pandanus palms. Where the rivers have carved their way through the ranges there are spectacular gorges and plunging waterfalls. Two massive river systems define the Kimberley's outer reaches: the Ord and Fitzroy. The Fitzroy loops around the south and southwestern flanks and runs into the sea near Derby, while the Ord in the east has been dammed to provide irrigation for a major scheme below Kununurra.
Few people live here, other than on the vast cattle stations or remote Aboriginal reserves. It's over three times the area of England, but with only two roads traversing it. One is the sealed Great Northern Highway, skirting around the south of the region, along which the Kimberley's few settlements are found. The other, the Gibb River Road, cuts through the heart of the Kimberley. Most of it is unsealed -- a rough, dusty, corrugated route. If you haven't been along this road, you haven't experienced the real Kimberley. One other rough, unsealed road heads north half way along the Gibb River Road: the Kalumburu Road that leads to the Aboriginal community of the same name. Mitchell Falls, one of the major if hard-to-get-to attractions of the Kimberley, is accessible from the Kalumburu Road.
The Kimberley is a land of extremes, with incredible light and vibrant colors -- of sea, sky, and terrain -- including the fiery red fine soil called pindan. The region is famous for Wandjina Aboriginal rock art depicting people with circular hairdos that look more than a little like beings from outer space. It is also known for the "Bradshaw figures" rock paintings, sticklike representations of human forms that may be the oldest art on earth.
The unofficial capital of the East Kimberley is Kununurra. The small agricultural town serves as the base for wildlife cruises on the Ord; tours to the Bungle Bungle, a massive labyrinth of beehive-shaped rock formations; and El Questro, a cattle station where you can hike, fish, and cruise palm-filled gorges by day and sleep in comfy permanent safari tents or glamorous homestead rooms by night.
The largest town, Broome, is the gateway to the West Kimberley and starting point for most tours. It's not really part of the Kimberley but rather an exotic resort which started life as a 19th-century pearling port. Its waters now produce the world's biggest South Sea pearls, and it has become a major winter holiday destination. There are only four other small towns, all on the fringes of the region.
The pristine Kimberley coast between Broome and Kununurra is littered with islands, gulfs, and long inlets, almost all uninhabited and with no trace of human activity. Everything is affected by massive tides of up to 10m (33 ft.), which create impressive effects when funneled through narrow passages. Cruises to this remote and dramatic coastline have become progressively more popular.