Like much of the Australian outback, the Kimberley thumbs its nose at human existence. In the 18th century, its weather-withered terrain thwarted early attempts by white settlers to farm and colonise, leaving explorers nothing to map but a string of False Points and Disappointment Bays. This, of course, has been the big draw for the modern adventure traveller who is prepared to rough it, camping along the fringes of the region’s scant tarmacked roads, or for those who can afford an exclusive cruise along its distinctive red rock coastline.
I have come to explore this wild stretch of the Western Australia coast neither by road nor sea, but via the newly launched Aerial Highway – a network of bush airstrips and watery runways served by a handful of local airlines. Its fleet of fixed-wing aircraft and seaplanes provides access to the growing crop of luxury lodges and resorts now appearing across the Kimberley’s vast land mass, an area roughly three times the size of England.
The joy of this aerial experience is as much about the journey as the being there. As the plane lifts off, then circles over the surreal geological hallmarks of the region, from waterfalls that flow sideways to the beehive-shaped mountains of the Bungle Bungles, resembling a cosy huddle of Antony Gormley statues, such wonders are laid out like a weather-worn treasure map, yours for the taking. What’s more, this effortless mode of transport puts firmly on the tourist map places previously known only to diamond miners, cow herders and pearl farmers.
Here, nature is the star of the show – and the new lodges are designed to make the most of the Kimberley’s unique flora and fauna. My 12-seater Cessna touches down at Berkeley River Lodge , a contemporary clapboard property that has just opened on the north-east coast, where turtles and dolphins are among the visitors. The recently re-vamped Eco Beach , just outside Broome, has luxury eco-tents set in the shade of giant dunes and offers yoga classes at sunrise, overlooking the Indian Ocean.
Heading inland, my next stop on the Aerial Highway is the pioneering El Questro Homestead , which has just bounced back from a wet-season battering. The cyclone-shaken foundations of its cliff-top Chamberlain Suite have been repaired, and three new villas have been added. Made of wood and glass, they have terraces that appear to hover thrillingly above the Chamberlain River , where turtles and crocodiles are among the sightings. Each of the suites has a free-standing, egg-shaped bath, from which a starlit ablution feels somewhere between outback bush camp and luxury Kenyan safari. The surrounding million-acre wilderness park has Serengeti-style rock escarpments to climb, acacia-studded savannah to explore on horseback, and palm-fringed hot springs whose healing waters were credited by Nicole Kidman with boosting her fertility.
Nowhere is the primordial magic of the outback more apparent than in the Bungle Bungles, a range of stripy , conical mountains known as Purnululu to the local Kija Aboriginal people. A short drive from El Questro, along roads hazy with fine red outback sand, is Kununurra , a hub town for the Aerial Highway. From here, trusty light aircraft take sightseers on round-trips over Purnululu National Park , a select few alighting at its tiny airstrip to spend a night or two under the stars. I bed down at Bungle Bungle Wilderness Lodge , a bush camp with simple, safari-style tents grouped around a fire pit. It is the most pared-down stop on my Aerial Highway tour but it leaves an indelible impression. The outback’s blazing amber sunsets, star-encrusted nights and still, sudden dawns are left to speak entirely for themselves.
Tailor Made Travel (0845 456 8050 , tailor-made.co.uk ) is offering an eight-day Kimberley package from £3,040 per person, based on two sharing. The price includes international flights, a six-day air safari with two nights at Bungle Bungle Wilderness Lodge and two at El Questro, air transfers, a 4x4 drive, breakfast throughout plus lunch and dinner in the Bungle Bungles, sightseeing, park fees and two nights in Broome at the Cable Bay Beach Club.