Western Australia: Red sands of Kimberley

By Patrice Gaffaney

View dinosaur footprints at Gantheaume Point near Broome. Photo / Tourism Western Australia
View dinosaur footprints at Gantheaume Point near Broome. Photo / Tourism Western Australia

The seaplane arcs gracefully over water that's the brightest, glistening turquoise I've seen. Surrounding the water are sheer cliffs of the Kimberley's oxidised, ancient red earth, topped by shrubs and trees. The panorama assaults the senses with its beauty.

Within moments we've glided into Talbot Bay and are taxiing to our houseboat, brown sharks following us at a safe distance. Cooked breakfast awaits, most welcome after a 6am flight from Broome, and while we devour our breakfast we ponder the adventure awaiting us: a fast boat trip through the Horizontal Waterfalls. Apparently, only two waterfalls in the world fall sideways, and they're both here.

The waterfalls are actually a phenomenon known as pinch neck rapids. Two narrow gaps in the range cause water to build up on one side of the opening, creating a "horizontal waterfall" as it gushes out the other side.

The guidebooks say that on a high spring tide the fall from one side to the other can be as much as 5m.

It wasn't quite that dramatic on our trip, but scary enough as Michael, our trusty pilot, manoeuvred the boat in and out of whirlpools and rapids.

The red rocks loom ominously on either side of the gap and we come perilously close as Michael gets into the swing of giving us the ride of our lives. Exhilarating is the only way to describe it.

On a more sedate trip back to the houseboat to await our seaplane flight back to Broome, Michael takes us around the mangrove- and wattle tree-fringed Talbot Bay, hoping for sightings of the local croc (absent today, thankfully. They do have sharp teeth ... ) but an osprey circled, keeping pace with our journey.

Our flight back is just as breathtaking - everywhere is the red, white and blue so synonymous with this pocket of the far north of Western Australia. Red earth, white sand and salt-pan and that blue, blue water. You can certainly get a sense of the scale of it from the air, but a coach trip to Willie Creek Pearl Farm, 38km from town, takes in all three.

The final part of the journey is off-road, and we bump our way along dusty, red, pot-holed roads and finally the farm comes into view, perched alongside the mangrove-ringed water.

Kylie, our guide, shows us the intricacies of cultured pearl farming then it's on to the water and a tour of the pearl beds and an introduction to the laborious process of keeping the shells clean and healthy while they (hopefully) grow their pearls.

A 15-minute helicopter ride brings those colours into stark relief once more as we sweep over the spectacular coastline.

A flight of a different kind, a hovercraft, reminds us of just how old this vast country is. Broome Hovercraft operates tours that glide across Roebuck Bay to a remote beach that, 120 million years ago, was home to Sauropod dinosaurs.

While I marvelled at the hugeness of their footprints, my tour colleagues stepped into them for the obligatory picture. It seemed irreligious to be potentially defacing something so ancient, so I declined the offer to join.

A far better answer to budding palaeontologists lies at Gantheaume Pt, just out of Broome township. The footprints are visible only at low tide, but concrete casts have been made and are embedded into the rocks at the top of the cliff. Far more sensible.

The byword for this part of Western Australia is experience the extraordinary. One Sydneysider summed it up better, I felt. It's the true Australia; the way it was before the high-rises arrived.

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- Herald on Sunday

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