Monday 28 January 2019

Streaming and on SBS - Rod Bishop sits down for THE KIMBERLEY CRUISE: Australia’s Last Great Wilderness, 2019, SBS slow summer, 14 hours.

Streaming until 12 February

Coral Discoverer
Wikipedia claims the Norwegians kicked off Slow Television with a 7-hour train journey in 2009. Since then Belgium, Hong Kong, the UK, Spain and now Australia have all contributed to this new television genre. (Wiki also mentions - a stationary camera looking at a front lawn and running continuously since 2006).

It was SBS’s 14-hour The Kimberley Cruise that had me anchored (ahem) in front of the TV. There is also a wimpy three-hour version. It also gave me plenty of time to wonder how many of my friends would be snorting “For heaven’s sake, get a life ’’.

I’ve been to the Kimberley on four occasions; have driven the Gibb River and Kalumburu Roads to the Mitchell Plateau; walked the Bungle Bungles; hung around in Broome for weeks on end; stayed at Cape Leveque and One Arm Point; taken tinnies from Faraway Bay to find remote Gwion Gwion paintings; been to Kununurra and Wyndham; eaten the best spaghetti carbonara of my life in Derby;  done a dive and snorkel cruise out to the Rowley Shoals, but none of these appear in The Kimberley Cruise.

However, ten years ago I did a similar cruise around the Kimberley coastline and was interested in reliving the experience, even if it meant 13 hours and one hour of commercials.

We start in Broome, arguably the most interesting town in Australia. Unfortunately, the Broome Wharf is probably the least interesting place in Broome. We listen to the crew chatting, watch the lines drawn in and get a few superimposed titles about Broome’s population (16,222), the size of the Kimberley (bigger than Britain and Ireland combined) and learn that we are following “the route taken by Muslim traders, European explorers, pirates, refugees” and that “Malaysians, Timorese, Filipinos, Japanese and Indigenous Australians worked in the pearling industry.” For visual interest, we get a fleeting CGI glimpse of an old pearling lugger. As we chug north along the Dampier Peninsula coast, there’s another title about the famous Lombadina Mission (1906), the Indigenous communities and the spread of Christianity.

About now, there’s a sinking feeling we won’t actually be seeing any of this interesting stuff. The closest we get to the Dampier is a thin ribbon of a distant shoreline with kilometres of sea between us and it. And then we crash-cut to the first 5-minute commercial break and, like all the 13 commercial breaks to come, it’s very jarring indeed.

A word about the vessels. We are on board the Coral Discoverer, a 72-passenger cruise ship. There are dozens of vessels that ply up and down the Kimberley coast in the dry season and they range from 12 passengers to mammoths that carry hundreds. Some offer half the coastline, some do Broome to Darwin, some do Wyndham to Broome, some have helicopters perched on top, some just charter helicopters when needed and all have some type of boat-to-shore vessel – a tender, zodiacs or tinnies.

The size of the vessel goes a long way in determining your experience.

Essentially, the bigger the boat, the further off shore you are and the greater the boat-to-shore logistics. Getting off the vessel and onto a tender, zodiac or tinnie to reach the land, the inlets and the rivers makes an incalculable difference.

The Coral Discoverer is not the biggest craft doing the route, but it’s certainly way bigger than the boats that cater for 12 guests. The SBS film crew obviously needed a biggish boat for their gear, their accommodation and their access to smaller craft to shoot from, but the bigger you get, the more it hampers your flexibility.

The Coral Discoverer has a tender on the back, apparently capable of taking all 72 passengers, but it looks very much like one of those craft that take tourists out onto the Kakadu wetlands, with all the same drawbacks of maneuverability.

The scale of the Coral Discoverer and the gear used by the crew does have some distinct advantages for the production. By the time we get to the Horizontal Waterfalls, and the even better Montgomery Reef, the aerial drone and surface photography is nothing short of superb and worthy of Attenborough.

But either due to the size of the ship or a lack of accessibility to the shore, we bypass some very significant Kimberley assets. There’s no Cape Leveque and One-Arm Point, but there is a side-trip into a defunct mining operation and its stuffed-up sea-wall on Koolan Island (a superimposed title tells us the island was occupied by Indigenous inhabitants for 30,000 years).

We arrive at Raft Point but instead of going ashore to see the magnificent Wandjina paintings, all we get is another superimposed title and graphics of a few paintings overlaid as the Discoverer chugs on. The astounding Gwion Gwion (Bradshaw) rock paintings are given the same treatment (a superimposed title and overlaid images of a couple of figures). The cave complex on Bigge Island with its historical layers of art work isn’t even mentioned. Nor is the unique Mitchell Plateau, with its stunning waterfalls, Livistona Eastonii palms and its Wandjina and Gwion rock art, an option offered by some cruise vessels who charter helicopters.

On board, there’s some stultifying footage on the Bridge; snippets of passengers drinking bubbly and talking quietly and long takes of people sitting at tables and eating.

The sea, however, at any time of the day, is always magnificent - azure, turquoise and jade beneath cobalt blue cloudless skies. An occasional whale or dolphin pops up in longshot.
Before turning for Darwin, The Kimberley Cruise has one last highlight (and there haven’t been many). It’s the long trip up the King George River between the vast, soaring escarpments. The drone photography makes the most of this spectacular place. Unfortunately, when the tender reaches its final destination - the twin waterfalls – they are bone dry.

A bit like the entire 14 hours - an opportunity missed.

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