At 5am in Faraway Bay, nobody is asleep. Not the rock wallabies, which shuffle away into the dusty scrub, wary of the morning sun inching its way along the sapphire-blue Timor Sea and up the rocky cliffs, making the orange sandstone glow stronger by the minute. Not the geckos, either. They silently move into the crevices of Faraway Bay’s cabins, protecting themselves from the heat they know will arrive soon. And certainly not we humans in the cabins. The view from our beds is just too spectacular. Seeing the sun rise along this glorious crescent of the Kimberley coast is not something many people have experienced. Faraway Bay is just that – far, far away. It’s more than 500 kilometres northeast of Broome and 280 kilometres away from Kununurra, the nearest major town in the Kimberley.
Take the 60-minute fl ight to Faraway Bay from Kununurra and you get a taste of how vast this region is: the crop fi elds and cattle stations (including the Packer-owned Carlton Hill Station, where much of Baz Luhrmann’s Australia was fi lmed), and then the seemingly infinite grasslands, peppered with spindly eucalypts, and the shimmering mudflats. Rivers such as the Berkeley and King George carve their way through deep gorges formed by tens of thousands of years of rainfall and head north out to the coast, a scribbly line of sandy coves and bays, one of which is Faraway Bay. Faraway Bay’s location is so remote, in fact, it didn’t actually have a name when leaseholder Bruce Ellison first came across it, some two decades ago, in his search for the ideal bush camp location. Ellison, now 65, had been working in the north of the country for many years setting up camps for oil exploration. It took him and his wife Robyn six years to be granted approval and a lease to build a bush camp on this land. What Ellison and Robyn eventually created here has minimal impact on the environment and has brought only a small increase to the number of sunrise witnesses. There are just eight cabins and the rest of the camp is one building, a rustic, open-air lodge with a small plunge pool and a golfing tee attached. A path leads down to a white, sandy beach, but the resident croc prevents any swimming. Power is supplied by a generator and solar panels and water comes from a nearby natural spring. Food supplies are flown in every week from Kununurra. Unique accommodation? You bet.
Since Faraway Bay’s beginning in 1997, it has twice won the prestigious Australian Tourism Award in this category. But whether it’s luxurious or not depends on your checklist. The rooms don’t have air-conditioning or stylish bedding but they do have 180-degree water views. Showers are taken outdoors, but the water is piping hot and organic soaps and shampoos are provided. The dining area is frequented by all insects great and small, but the food served there is sublime – from the homemade toasted muesli for breakfast until the banana and caramel créme pie for dessert at night. As well as Bruce and Robyn Ellison at the camp, there is a hostess, a chef and two guides. Considering the maximum number of guests is 12 (16 if a single group), that’s a healthy staff-to-guest ratio. All activities are led by guides and included in the price, so you can go wherever you want as long as the weather is agreeable. During my stay, there was only one other guest and he wanted to go fishing with Bruce, so that left me with my own personal guide, Steve McIntosh, to show me the natural surrounds.
Our first excursion is to the King George River, a short ride away on Faraway Bay’s 13-metre cruiser Diamond Lass. Up close, the 80m-high gorges of this river are much more varied and beautiful that what you see of them from a plane seat. There are washes of yellow, ochre, red, brown and dusky pink throughout the ancient sedimentary rock, as well as mauve-coloured mineral deposits that have eroded faster, reminding me of honeycomb. Black algae runs down parts of the gorge, showing where water has cascaded for centuries. Some parts of the gorge are almost sheer rock face while others are collections of boulders so precarious you hold your breath as you glide past. Up until a few years ago, we would have had this river to ourselves, but now there’s a regular fleet of rubber dinghies carrying passengers from a cruise ship to share it with. Our single, sturdy boat, however, can still take us to places the others can’t reach. The river has twin falls, which at the time of our visit are still heavy with water from the plains. McIntosh edges the nose of boat just underneath its thunderous cold spray and I’m given the dubious treat of a shower. A much more sedate aquatic experience is the swimming hole we next visit, nestled in the upper reaches of a tiny cove at the mouth of the river. With cool, clear water and plenty of rocks to sun myself on, I could quite happily stay all day. Faraway Bay’s bushland, however, is just as enticing as its coastline. It is home to a remarkable collection of “Bradshaws”, ancient rock art that’s between 5000 and 20,000 years old (which predates Aboriginal arrival in Western Australia) and easily accessible by an hour’s bush walk. And it’s in the bush that McIntosh’s knowledge and experience truly impress. While I am stumbling through the spinifex grass, cursing my choice of shorts and worrying about the heat, McIntosh bounds along barefoot, pointing out purple lilies and explaining how their petals can be crushed up and used as insect repellant. Before he came to Faraway Bay seven years ago, McIntosh was a guide for scientific research teams doing field work and has spent a lot of time in Aboriginal communities.
It was McIntosh who discovered the rock art here, some 400 panels spread over 20 kilometres. He shows me three that are within 100 metres of each other and I’ve never seen anything like it: carefully painted images of elongated human figures with elaborate headdresses and jewellery. McIntosh’s theory is that at the time these figures were drawn, this area was a much different place to live. There would have been an abundance of food and water so the tribes living here wouldn’t have had to move around and would have had more time and energy to devote to themselves and art. The only disappointment in my excursion is that I don’t see a boab tree, a quintessential image of the Kimberley, but I get the next best thing: a taste. Chef Sam Smith has created a delicious salad using slices of baby boab root with rockmelon. The white root has the texture of a radish and the taste is similar to a water chestnut. The highlight of Faraway Bay’s cuisine, though, is the campfire roast the staff cooks on my last evening. It’s a communal effort: McIntosh tends to the jacket potatoes, damper and roast lamb cooking on the coals while Smith prepares an appetiser of tempura trevally, using the fish Bruce and his guest have caught earlier that day.
The Faraway Bay staff are clearly closeknit, but guests are quickly made to feel part of the family. Sitting around the campfire, we share our tales from the day and there’s a lot of laughing and gentle teasing, especially when a praying mantis the size of a dinner plate lands on my shoulder and I react by shrieking and spilling my wine everywhere. But I get over my embarrassment quickly. There’s a sunset to enjoy. As the sun slips underneath the cliffs, clouds glow purple and pink above the muted browns and oranges of the bush. It’s a beautiful sight, and judging by the silence that falls over our group, one the people at this extraordinary bush camp never get tired of looking at.
The writer travelled as a guest of Faraway Bay and Australia’s North West Tourism.