Grabbing onto my hat so it doesn’t fly off, I look across Talbot Bay as we race along the water in a speedboat. The deep blue stretches out to rising walls of rock, painted red by nature, the colour of the Kimberley.
The boat skims quickly over the flat surface and, even with the sound of the air rushing past my ears, I can hear the enormous outboard motors at the back. When our skipper Taj Rowe finally stops the boat, you might expect to find yourself back in the silence that’s so prevalent here in remote Western Australia. But instead, I can hear the loud sound of gushing water. We’ve reached our destination – the Horizontal Falls.
In front of the boat, the tall cliff that marks the edge of the bay is broken with a gap about 20 metres wide, creating a 100-metre-long channel through to a lake on the other side. It’s through this passage that the water is cascading at a dramatic speed.
“What we’ll do is get in there nice and close to the top side of the gap,” Taj says, “before we make our way through, heading downhill on water.”
Did Taj just say ‘downhill’? Yes, he did, and it’s a good description. As the boat speeds into the channel, it feels like we’re bumping our way down whitewater rapids, the powerful engines combining with the intensity of the flow to create an exhilarating propulsion. Some of the passengers squeal with delight as we hurtle through and then swing around the new lake in a high-velocity arc.
This channel is one of two (the other narrower one is just across the lake) that make up the Horizontal Falls, which are caused by the enormous tides found along the western Kimberley coast. As the water flows into Talbot Bay from the Indian Ocean, the millions of litres trying to fit through this gap every second can’t move fast enough, creating a build-up on one side and a difference in height of up to several metres, leading to the cascading effect. But what’s particularly fascinating is that twice a day, with the change of tide, the channel will flatten out, stop moving completely, and then begin to flow faster and lower in the opposite direction!
It seems you can’t come here without someone telling you about David Attenborough, who included the Horizontal Falls in his 2002 documentary Great Natural Wonders and described them as “Australia’s most unusual natural wonder”. At the time, he commented that “few people have ever seen this spectacle” but the irony is that his coverage of the site put it on the tourist map and it’s now one of Western Australia’s most famous attractions.
Most day-trippers visit the Horizontal Falls from Broome (although another option is from the closer town of Derby). With road access unavailable and water access impractical (except for longer cruises), the easiest way to come is by air. That’s not a bad thing, though, because the view is incredible from the seaplane as we fly in across the Buccaneer Archipelago, named for the English buccaneer William Dampier who charted the area in 1688.
From the air, the landscape of the archipelago looks like a giant brushstroke of ochre, solid and vibrant inland but fading out to thin tendrils and islands along the coast, the earth stark against the cobalt of the water. But it’s the Horizontal Falls themselves that steal the show, with the flight giving you one of the best views of the white churning water pouring through the passages.
The main operator of tours here is Horizontal Falls Seaplane Adventures and, as the name implies, the company uses seaplanes to transport visitors so they can land right on the water. Within Talbot Bay, it has a huge houseboat complex that is the base for your visit. It has rooms for 35 overnight guests, if you choose that option, and it can host about 250 visitors during the day. Five seaplanes bring people in and out at different times.
The thrill ride into the falls is just part of the experience, which also includes a meal and a more leisurely cruise around the bay to see the flora and fauna. As Taj describes it, “the birds rule the roost. This harsh undulating landscape here means that most larger land animals aren’t going to try to come through here”.
The same can be said for us humans and, if it wasn’t for the seaplanes, most of us wouldn’t try to come through here either. For visitors in Broome who don’t want to take to the air, an easy day trip is along a newly sealed road to Cape Leveque at the northernmost point of the Dampier Peninsula (yet another location named after that buccaneer). Here, the famous turquoise water of the western Kimberley coastline hits the bright white sand that contrasts with dramatic red rocky cliffs.
The cliffs of Cape Leveque have been shaped by wind and water and, although this natural sculpture is part of the attraction, it does put the majesty of the Horizontal Falls into perspective. The rocks of Talbot Bay are about two billion years old and almost impervious to erosion – one of the reasons this phenomenon was able to occur. It’s yet another of these unique attractions that some of us are only discovering because we’re now exploring Australia.