A nature escape in one of Australia’s most remote regions.
WORDS AND PHOTOS KIRSTIE BEDFORD
A boat threads its way through the Horizontal Falls in the Kimberley.
Nature’s artwork doesn’t get much better than this. I’m on a seaplane above the Kimberley region of Western Australia, heading for the Horizontal Falls, a natural phenomenon described by David Attenborough as “one of the greatest wonders of the natural world.” Below us, the turquoise water of Talbot Bay snakes its way around the forest-clad islands of the Buccaneer Archipelago. It's taken hours to get here. It was a nearly 125 mile drive to the tiny airstrip from the town of Broome. Now, we’re soaring in the cloudless sky, so blue it’s as if someone has taken to it with a marker, and I have to force myself to put the camera down for just a few moments and take it all in.
The view you'll be rewarded with when flying into Talbot Bay with Horizontal Falls Seaplane Adventures.
The Eye of the Falls
We land in Talbot Bay and board a luxury houseboat where we're given a briefing and then step into a waiting speedboat. The incredible phenomenon we're about to see is the result of the fast-moving tide, which is sucked through two narrow gorges of the McLarty Range.
Within minutes we're surrounded by burnt-orange, sheer cliff faces rising from the emerald water.
We come to a gap in the cliffs (the first of the Horizontal Falls) and a woman to my left says, “we’re not going through that are we?” Before I can answer, our guide Taj revs the engine and we skim across the water and through the opening to the delighted screams of those on board. Taj does a 360-degree spin, then glides towards the narrower second gap, where a torrent of water gushes beneath us. He backs the boat into the fast-flowing water, and it feels as if he’s using all the 300hp of the boat’s engines to keep us from being sucked into the tornado-like current.
Cameras are pulled out and photos snapped before we head back to the houseboat for a lunch of locally caught Barramundi. The staff on board don’t need to ask how it went. They can see from the smiles on our faces. As for Attenborough, he is right, of course.
All over the Kimberley region, you'll find the iconic red pindan soil and sandstone cliffs popping against a turquoise ocean like this, at Gantheaume Point.
Broome is the best place to base yourself to explore the Kimberley region, and it's worth taking some time to explore the quaint town itself. A tour with Chris and Robyn Maher of Salty Plum Social, who run small bar walking tours, will have you quickly acquainted with its history, and well-nourished with canapes and wines (or beer) along the way. Tours start at the new Roebuck Bay lookout, which incorporates artwork and interpretive information created by Yawuru, the traditional owners of the land, and has sweeping views across the bay. On our tour, there are three breaks at varying bars and cafes, while Chris covers the history and lives of the Yawuru people, the renowned tides that locals live by (the Kimberley has the biggest tides in the Southern Hemisphere with nearly 11-yard variant between low and high tide) and the town’s pearling history. Pre-World War I, Broome was the busiest pearling port in the world, supplying 80 percent of the world’s pearl shell. Immigrants came from Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Timor and China to seek their riches. The discovery of plastic in the 1950s changed things drastically, but the region produces some of the finest pearls in the world, and there are plenty of ways to have a pearling experience of your own.
It's worth a trip to Willie Creek Pearl Farm for the scenery alone, and, if you go at low tide you might even see one of the three resident crocodiles.
Shell to Showroom
I decide to head out to Willie Creek Pearl Farm, about 24 miles from Broome. You’ll need a 4WD to get to the property, and it’s best to go with a tour guide. It’s a rough road trip and our driver, John, jokes the bumpy ride is often referred to as a “Kimberley massage.” The entire drive is on the iconic rusty-colored 'pindan' soil the region is so renowned for. We ask him to stop so we can take some photographs of that seemingly never-ending red road, and he warns us as we step off the bus, “Get that on you and it’ll stay with you for life.”
“Broome punches well above its weight [producing pearls] and it’s not because of us, it’s mother nature and we just go along for the ride.”
On arrival at Willie Creek Pearl Farm we’re greeted by one of the staff, Lisa, who gives us a quick rundown of the history of the property, which saw a young Valda and Don Banfield start the business 31 years ago. It’s still in the family today and guests are able to see the entire four-year process from shell to showroom.
We board a boat and head out to see the live oysters in their natural environment, and our skipper plucks a shell from the water. When are back on dry land, Lisa shucks it and owner Rob Banfield appears. He’s keen to see what we’ve found after an earlier group produced a pearl worth US$9,000. Sadly, ours didn’t reach much more than US$750, but we don't mind. A trip out here is worth the scenery alone, and if it's low tide, you might get lucky and come across one of the three resident crocodiles.
The pearl is passed around, inspected from all angles, as Rob talks about the family business, refusing to take credit for its award-winning success (including being inducted into the Western Australia Tourism Hall of Fame three times).
Willie Creek Farm owner Rob Banfield with the US$9,000 pearl found by a group on a tour of the pearl farm.
The rusty sandstone cliffs at Gantheaume Point that look out to Roebuck Bay are a must-see.
The Days of Dinosaurs
We wake to a scorching day. It’s consistent with the rest of the trip. While it’s May (the Australian winter), it’s been 95°F every day. Our t-shirts are stuck to our backs as we enter our air-conditioned bus. We’re on our way to Gantheaume Point, less than four miles from Broome. We hop off the bus and join the other dozen or so tourists who are standing on the ocher-colored sandstone cliffs that tower over an emerald Roebuck Bay.
They’re all taking selfies and looking for the 125-million-year-old fossilized dinosaur footprints that appear at low tide. Despite the sweltering conditions, we’re reluctant to leave this picturesque spot.
"Meet you on the bus," our driver says. A polite way of trying to hurry us up. As we board, no one seems to mind that the red pindan dirt has left its rusty ring around the base of our sneakers, and even if John's proved wrong, and it does come off, we know the colorful Kimberley region will be etched in our memories forever.