A horizontal waterfall. The very concept is strange. How can water fall horizontally? It can and it does, provided you have the intersection of a number of factors. That combination occurs in the Kimberley in remote north west Australia. It’s rugged country, characterised by eroded, ancient mountains and thousands of tiny islands where those same eroded mountains were drowned when the ocean rose. Here, ten metres of water, the second highest tides in the world (after Nova Scotia) surge backwards and forwards twice a day. In some places, the water rushes through narrow canyons to flood a valley at high tide, and rush back through the gap at low tide. The phenomenon happens in several places – but none so spectacularly as at Horizontal Falls. Think of water going through a funnel and you’ve got a good analogy.
We started our day early. Pick up was at 0530 to catch a seaplane to Talbot Bay. The alarm went off at 3am, courtesy of a person who shall remain nameless, who set the alarm on a phone still on Australian Central time, which was an hour and a half earlier than Western time. What? Nobody’s perfect. And I’m sure I’ll never hear the end of it.
The sun was rising as the plane took off for the flight over the rugged Kimberley hills, the light glancing off mist-filled valleys lying between bare cliffs. Then we were descending into Talbot Bay. The pilot banked, performing a low level turn over the falls. Those gaps looked narrow from up there. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one feeling a prickle of adrenalin.
Trips through the falls are dependent on the tide and we headed out immediately. The first gap is twenty meters wide. The powerful jet boat raced forward, going up the flow, bouncing and pitching across the churning water. The skipper held the vessel at the point where the water looked smooth before it tumbled into chaos. Going back through was even more exciting as the boat literally fell off each wave top. We did the trip back up again and took a look at the second gap. To be honest, I was scared he’d take the boat through that. The canyon is only seven metres wide and some of those sticky-outy bits looked as though they were just waiting to eviscerate a boat that tried the trip. But our intrepid skipper didn’t relish the thought of all the paperwork if anything went wrong, so we headed back for breakfast, given a promise we’d go through when the tide had dropped.
We went back during that hour when the tide has lost its power and the water in bays were at equilibrium before the great rush started again. The contrast is stunning. The boat ran easily between the cliffs, revealing bays ringed by red-gold hills, mud flats and grey-green scrub, all reflected in mirror-flat water under an impossibly blue sky. The only sound was the creaking of the boat and our voices.