Travelling around Australia, we were headed for Broome, WA, when we faced a difficult decision.
Like everyone else travelling in the area, we had to decide whether we should head up to Horizontal Falls, north of Derby, or not. My wife Jennifer and I had heard a bit about the falls but, frankly, we didn’t really know where they were, whether they were worth seeing or how to get there. One thing we did know was that it was going to cost a lot of money to fly there.
Fellow RVers told us not to miss the falls because they are so dramatic. Only one man said they weren’t worth the effort or the prohibitive cost. We kept changing our minds – one moment it was definitely no, then we would have a sudden change of heart. The next day we were back to no again but, after a bit more research and some positive feedback from some friends we made on the road, we finally bit the bullet and decided to part with $800 each and take a seaplane flight to the falls for the day. On the particular trip we booked, we were taken through the rushing waters of the falls by jet boat. But if boats or the price don’t take your fancy, you can also go by helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft and there are many options to suit every budget.
Jennifer and I opted for the full day Horizontal Falls Seaplane Adventures tour flying out of Broome, but the company also flies out of Derby. On the morning of our trip, we were picked up from the PCYC in Broome, which is where we were staying with our Iveco-based motorhome. All the other van parks were full on our arrival and the PCYC had set up an outstanding overflow area in Scott Street. The facilities were good and all the profits went into the club, which serves local youth. If you don’t intend to stay in Broome itself, you can leave your van safely at the PCYC for the day for a small fee while you visit the falls.
The small bus picked us up at 5.30am and drove us to Broome airport as the first rays of the morning sun began to peek over the horizon. The 14-seat turbo-prop seaplane was sitting on the tarmac and the very personable and professional pilot, Jeremy, gave us a safety briefing before getting us up into the clear skies. There was no microphone on the plane, but Jeremy did his best to keep us informed of the local landmarks on the one-hour trip to the falls.
It was all smooth flying as we took in the views over Buccaneer Archipelago at just 200m and touched down on the calm blue waters of Talbot Bay, north of Derby, a short time later. Jeremy taxied up to a large pontoon where our jet boat was moored and ready to take us on our high-speed trip through the surging water of the falls. But first, given our early start, we had a hot breakfast aboard another fully-equipped boat moored to the same pontoon. We then watched as one of the crew fed the local tawny nurse sharks.
The sharks are fed several times a day and they are quite tame, so you can even pat them on the head. They are not a fearsome breed but it still pays to be careful. If you’re feeling brave, jump into the shark-proof enclosure with a mask and snorkel (which are provided) and watch them face to face. A few days earlier, a hammerhead shark swam into the area and I, for one, wished I had been in the enclosure the see that.
As we were watching the local wildlife, our skipper, Adrian, was warming up the 600hp, 14-seat Jetstream – touted as the fastest craft in the Kimberley. Adrian and his colleagues have an interesting life as they live out on the pontoon on Talbot Bay for weeks at a time during the tourist season. It sounds idyllic but the isolation must be hard for them.
Horizontal Falls are not waterfalls in the traditional sense. They are an incredibly powerful tidal current crashing through a couple of very narrow gorges in the McLarty Ranges. The two gorges are 20m and 12m wide respectively and, as the surging waters race through them, the experience is amazing. Naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough once described the Horizontal Falls as one of the greatest natural wonders of the world.
These monster tidal movements of up to 10m occur over a 6.5-hour period from low tide to high tide and then in reverse. Because the water rises so rapidly at the entrance to the gaps in the rocks, the water builds up into a 4m swirling horizontal ‘waterfall’ between the two bays. We watched in awe as the azure water raced towards us, slowing considerably after it had made it past the narrow, restrictive entrance. Adrian gave us some last-minute information then hit the after-burners and we rocketed towards the narrow gorge. It was exhilarating and amazing. To climb over the swirling water as it surged through that small entrance is an experience Jennifer and I will not forget. To complete the experience, Adrian stopped the boat in the middle of the water and idled the motor before tearing off to take us through the narrow gap again. We then went on a lengthy cruise of Talbot Bay, taking in the many steep cliffs and hand-feeding the local fish.
At the end of the cruise, we were dropped back at the pontoon, where Jeremy was waiting to load us back on the seaplane and fly us back to the mainland where we visited local beaches and One Arm Point Aquaculture Hatchery. For food lovers, Cape Leveque’s Kooliman Resort is the highlight of being back on land. Hungry travellers are provided with a beautiful meal of barramundi.
After lunch, we jumped on board a large 4WD bus for the long trip back to Broome along a very wide, but very dusty and corrugated, 170km road. Don’t even think about taking your conventional van or motorhome on this road up to Cape Leveque as it will take its toll very quickly.
On the way back down the track, we stopped at Beagle Bay to take a close look at the historic Beagle Bay Church, where people worship each Sunday. This is no average bush church, though – the entire altar and surrounds are made of shells. It is quite a tourist attraction. Built between 1915 and 1917, the Sacred Heart church and tower is constructed of 90,000 clay bricks. A team of local women helped the church authorities decorate the church with Mother of Pearl, cowries, volutes and olive shells from local beaches to be used for the mosaics. Don’t miss the ornate beauty of this church, which sits commandingly beside the impressive local Aboriginal settlement.
We then headed south to Broome and our driver Richard broke up the journey by playing a DVD about the Kimberley region and keeping us updated on the local landforms. The main feature on the way back was red dust, red dirt, red road and, you guessed it, large red corrugations. We finally alighted at 5.15pm – exhilarated and extremely tired. It was a huge day, but one where we believed our money was well-spent. For a little extra, you can stay on the luxury vessel in Talbot Bay overnight but, while that would suit many people, we preferred our own beds – ones that kept still all night.
Before leaving Broome make sure you visit glorious Cable Beach with its extraordinary sunsets. And check out the natural phenomenon of the Staircase to the Moon, which occurs when the full moon rises over Roebuck Bay’s mudflats at very low tide. The rising moon creates an amazing optical illusion of a staircase climbing towards the moon. The phenomenon happens three nights each month from March to October.
As we nodded off to sleep that night, we hoped these places would live up to the excitement and beauty of the Horizontal Falls.
- The Horizontal Falls
- Beagle Bay Church
- One Arm Point Aquaculture Hatchery
- Cape Leveque
- Staircase to the Moon
- Cable Beach
- Roebuck Bay
- The Horizontal Falls are very fast tidal flows through two narrow gorges, located in Talbot Bay, north of Broome and Derby.
- You can fly by seaplane, fixed wing or helicopter; travel from Derby or Broome; stay overnight on a cruiser or head back to your accommodation.
- The flight to the Horizontal Falls from Broome is just over an hour, while it is just 40 minutes from Derby. You can leave your RV at Broome or Derby. The managers of the Broome PCYC overflow van park levy a small charge to store your van for the day if you aren’t staying with them.
- A three-hour helicopter trip with Slingair Heliwork over Broome, Cable Beach, and other places including the Horizontal Falls will cost $1250: 1800 095500 or www.slingair.com.au
- Horizontal Falls Seaplane Adventures tour flying out of Broome costs $800 for a full day and $645
from Derby: (08) 9192 1172 or www.horizontalfallsadventures.com.au
- Derby Tourism: www.derbytourism.com.au
- Broome Tourism: www.broomevisitorcentre.com.au
Originally published in Caravan World #512, March 2013.