Earlier this year, Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman found themselves in the diminutive but thriving East Kimberley township of Kununurra, just west of the Western Australia/Northern Territory border. In town for the filming of Australia, director Baz Luhrmann's latest blockbuster, the two actors were quick to wax lyrical about their love of the Kimberley region - a vast, uninhabited chunk of wilderness which begins just west of Broome and stretches all the way to the NT border.
It's hardly a surprise to find Kidman and Jackman thus enamoured. Landscape like this leaves a taste in your mouth and has an almost spiritual cachet - something to do with how comfortingly insignificant one feels in the face of all that ancient there-ness. Landscape one, tiny human, nil. It's as if God supersized remote and ended up with the Kimberley. The red sandstone ranges that are such a feature of the region are some of the oldest in the world. Worn away over time by the torrential rains of the wet season, they've formed beautiful gorges and permanent waterholes.
The region where Luhrmann decided to recreate his vision of outback Australia is particularly, resoundingly, empty. Most of Australia's filming took place at the Packer-owned Carlton Hill Station, approximately an hour's drive from Kununurra. Had Luhrmann and his crew been able to travel a further 200km across impenetrable ranges and valleys to the north, they would have discovered a coastline filigreed with unsurveyed creeks and bays so remote, so unexplored, that they've yet to be officially named. Here, perched on a rocky sandstone outcrop overlooking the Timor Sea - and within sight of Western Australia's northernmost tip - is Faraway Bay, an exquisite bush camp accessible only by air and boat.
Owners Robyn and Bruce Ellison discovered the bay while on a driving adventure back in the 80s. "It wasn't an official place or anything, but we'd heard from the locals about the amazing fishing and the views. We were determined to take a look," remembers Robyn. The pair made their way across country by four-wheel drive, travelling along some 660km of weaving, rough dirt roads before finding an old track which led them down to the ocean.
Bruce, who'd earned a crust setting up camps for oil exploration companies up and down the East Kimberley coast, knew gold when he saw it. "I'd never visited such a pristine spot. There was good access and plenty of sweet spring water." The pair camped on the beach and the next day Bruce turned to Robyn and announced: "I'd like to build a bush camp right here". It was as simple as that.
Six years later, having submitted their plans for public environmental review, the Ellisons were granted a lease over a substantial patch of virgin bush. In 1997, their long-held plans were realised with the opening of The Bush Camp at Faraway Bay.
For those willing to travel and pay for the exclusivity of genuine remoteness, it doesn't get much better than this. Accommodation is in one-room cabins dotted along a cliff top, each cleverly designed to take full advantage of the 180-degree ocean views while maintaining privacy. The camp takes just 12 guests at a time - up to 16 if it's a single group.
The cabins are upper-end practical rather than downright luxurious. Some have private ablutions while others make use of the communal facilities nearby, tastefully adorned with hessian curtains. A shell-strewn pathway leads past native scrub to Eagle Lodge, a large central meals area. It's here that guests gather each day to take in the views over Faraway Bay, swim in the property's glorious spring-water pool and watch their meals being prepared by chef Simon Naber. He has a fully fitted kitchen but is in his element cooking on the two large fire pits made from local rock, which sit to one side of the dining area.
Robyn, who spends half her time on-site and half back in Kununurra, works closely with growers of the Ord River Irrigation system, sourcing produce for The Bush Camp. Naber, too, uses local produce whenever he can get his hands on it. Inevitably, given the bounty of marine life which thrives in the area's winding mangrove creek systems and deeper waters, this means fish. "We had one of our guests hook and release 11 different species in a day," says Naber, who catches only what he needs and uses it fresh. "We regularly get the really sexy stuff - barramundi, mangrove jack, queenfish, Spanish mackerel and giant trevally all make it on to the menu."
Guests arrive by light aircraft, following the trajectory of the Ord River as it snakes and thickens its way to the Timor Sea. Turning west at the coastline, the plane drops altitude to give passengers a chance to spot dugong, manta rays and other aquatic life. It's not unusual to spy a lone saltwater crocodile sunning itself on a strip of beach. On landing, Bruce is waiting to greet guests and transfer them by topless four-wheel-drive Toyota ("It's our modified limo. I took off the top with an angle grinder") the remaining 4.5km to the camp.
The couple's focus in creating Faraway Bay was to have minimal impact on the pristine surrounds. "It's an overused term, but we really wanted to leave a very small footprint," says Robyn. "We're not allowed to introduce plants or animals. We've lived in the bush all our lives and we take our responsibilities very seriously. It's how we choose to live."
The couple take great delight in sharing their patch of paradise with the 500 or so guests who visit Faraway Bay each year. "They're a diverse bunch, from all walks of life. They come here for a good time, for a bit of a yarn, to kick back and relax," says Bruce, who sees himself as something of an anchor. "I don't do much guiding but I make sure the camp keeps rolling on. If the generator or anything else plays up, I'm there."
Each May, Chris Taylor, general manager and executive chef at Fraser's Restaurant in Perth, swaps his chef's whites for boardies and heads to the bush camp to teach at the Kimberley Cooking School. Taylor says he can't wait to get his hands on all that wonderful fish. "You don't need to get fancy with this quality of produce. Often I cook the protein component really simply and let the sauces do the talking."
The Kimberley Cooking School runs over a period of five days, and Taylor's strong preference for Asian flavours seems entirely in tune with the climate and atmosphere of the place. Confit baby octopus is cooked to butter-like tenderness and served with stirfried bean sprouts and a dark, hot chilli jam. Rujak salad, dressed with tamarind, shrimp paste and roasted peanuts, simply dances in the mouth. A red vinegar and fried-onion dressing takes duck - flown in, of course - to new heights. Guests learn a range of other secrets. How to make a good eggplant pahie curry, the intricacies of a fiery Yemeni spice paste called zhug, the exact location of the beer fridge…
"What we have here is an oasis of diversity," says camp manager Steve McIntosh, who introduces guests to the area's myriad natural attractions. "We've recorded more than 120 bird species, and Ju Ju Wilson, an elder of the region, has also helped us identify more than 50 different bush foods." Robyn Ellison adds, "Steve is as much a part of Faraway Bay as we are. His knowledge, ability and enthusiasm are integral to this place."
Daytime activities are included in the tariff and are as strenuous or leisurely as guests' needs dictate. There are rock pools and waterfalls to visit, secret fishing spots to discover, crocodiles to spot. Rock wallabies, quolls and phascogales all call the place home. Boat trips on the Ellisons' 13-metre cruiserDiamond Lass often lead to Lesueur Island, a sandy coral atoll 12km off the coast. Less than a kilometre long, it's a major nesting area for flatback turtles.
McIntosh has been at Faraway Bay for seven years and shows no sign of losing his enthusiasm for the place. He confesses that at the end of the dry season, when the tourists all go home, he hangs around the area for a few more months, "exploring, camping out, feeling the landscape". One of his major discoveries has been the existence of more than 400 panels of ancient rock art, spread over 20km of coastline. Local archaeologist and historian Lee Scott-Virtue has spent 26 years surveying Kimberley rock art. She's a regular visitor to Faraway Bay and says there is clear evidence that Aboriginal people have been visiting the area for at least 30,000 years. "We know this because many of the paintings here are of megafauna, giant kangaroos and crocodiles, that kind of thing, which disappeared at the end of the last ice age some 22,000 years ago."
More than two thirds of the rock art found at Faraway Bay consists of so-called Bradshaw figures, found throughout the north-west of Australia. The paintings demonstrate "an incredibly sophisticated level of painting using a whole range of brushes made from real hair", says Scott-Virtue. The paintings offer a window into a complex culture. "The range of human figures shows everything from high priests with very ornate costumes and headgear right down to hunting figures."
Sitting by The Bush Camp's magnificent pool at sunset, gin and tonic in hand as a northerly sea breeze cuts a swathe across the bay, guests watch as the dying sun lights up the red and brown cliff tops. It takes a moment to put this level of comfort into context. We're more than 3000km from Perth and the nearest corner shop is 70 minutes away by light aircraft, yet we have everything we need. A generator provides electricity. Pure spring water is gravity-fed from a rock pool above the property and makes for beautiful drinking. Heated by solar power, it's also used for the showers. Somewhere above us, a dingo howls into the night.
Take a letter, Maria. Dear Mr Luhrmann, there's something I'd like you to see. This is Australia.