Adventure

Horizontal Waterfalls And Secret Islands: The Buccaneer Archipelago Is Pristine For A Reason

A waterfall that needs to be seen to be believed.

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There’s off the beaten track and there’s the Buccaneer Archipelago. Even without travel restrictions, this umpteenth wonder of Western Australia is one of the hardest destinations to travel to, only accessible by boat or plane.

The Buccaneer Archipelago is made up of some 1,000 islands and, unlike much of the Kimberley’s tourist loop, you won’t find a road out here — just rainforest, coral lagoons, sponge gardens, deep-water canyons, secluded beaches, and turquoise water.

This remoteness, along with the Dambimangari ranger program, are what keep the Buccaneer Archipelago so pristine.

The Dambimangari Rangers

The Buccaneer Archipelago is named after the dead white bloke William Dampier — but this is Dambimangari and Mayala country. Today, Dambimangari (Dambi) rangers work tirelessly to maintain great swathes of this country. This includes doing plant and animal surveys, biosecurity patrols, weed control, controlled burning, setting up predator cameras, and protecting cultural sites.

“The best thing about this job is being able to get back on our homeland. Where our older people and ancestors came from,” Dambi ranger Pete told AWOL.

“I love the variety of jobs that we do,” said ranger Kieran. “One day we can be on the water, the next we’re flying in a helicopter.”

Dambi rangers also bring elders back on the country where their ancestors came from. This is crucial to learning elders’ stories and maintaining their culture. “Recently we took someone back to a place where he was born. It might be the last time [he gets to go there]. It makes me sad to see that,” said Pete.

Dambimangari Rangers

Dambimangari Rangers Pete and Amon collecting marine debris while on patrol along the Buccaneer coastline.

The rangers welcome the introduction of the Dambimangari visitors pass, which tourists can buy if they want to visit the Buccaneer Archipelago or areas under the Dambimangari Native Title Determination. “It’s good that people come to see our country. We want to see people enjoying the country, not being disrespectful or culturally inappropriate,” Dambi ranger Edmund told AWOL.

Dambi rangers ask tourists to buy a visitors pass, follow where it says they can and can’t go, and leave nothing but footprints. “If you’re gonna go to another person’s country you treat it as if you were going to your mother’s house… Look after it and respect it. If you [want] cultural awareness and you want to learn a bit more, go and see the people from that country, ask them ‘Can I go here?’ They’ll let you know,” said Pete.

Chasing (Horizontal) Waterfalls

Visiting Horizontal Falls is one of the best ways to see the Buccaneer Archipelago. The easiest way to get there is to fly there from Derby, Broome’s quiet neighbour. At Derby airport there are no rows of big planes or glimpses of a city skyline — families of skinny boab trees are scattered around the tarmac and brolgas feed on grass near where you take off.

A 30-minute flight from Derby takes you over coffee-coloured tidal mudflats, the turquoise waters of King Sound, and the jaw-dropping islands of the Buccaneer Archipelago. The seaplane lands at a pontoon in the spectacular Talbot Bay, where the water is an opaque blue-green, with huge sandstone cliffs rising out of it. Pale tawny nurse sharks glide just beneath the water’s surface.

On our trip, the skipper Dan herds about 40 of us onto a speedboat for our first glimpse of the Horizontal Falls. There are people from all over Australia here. Station workers in checkered oxford shirts, jeans, and wide brim hats. A friendly couple from Melbourne with funky hairstyles, flowing linen and Birkenstocks. Dan has an Irish accent and switches seamlessly between joking about us running out of fuel to how the tidal systems work in Talbot Bay’s three bays.

It’s simple really. As these huge, 11-metre tides rush into each bay, the narrow gaps in the sandstone cliffs restrict them. The water is moving at 40km an hour, but it can’t get through the gaps and into the next bay fast enough. Dan steers the boat towards “the narrow gap” to show us how this creates a horizontal waterfall. Beyond the gap in the cliffs, the water is higher than the body of water we’re in now. It’s like looking at a wall of water.

The sandstone cliffs are covered in mangrove trees, orange and green woollybutt trees, spinifex, and the rare Kimberley rose. You can see how huge the tides are by looking at the black stain on the sandstone, reaching several metres up. Further up the rock becomes the iconic Kimberley orange – the colour of iron oxidising. These sandstone cliffs are about 1.8-billion years old.

When we get back to the pontoon, a few tourists throw themselves into the shark cage. Tawny nurse sharks swim around at the surface, waiting for the skipper to throw their regulated daily feed of local barramundi. Their jaws clap shut as they catch the barra flesh. One of the skippers tells us that these sharks have at least 250 tiny teeth. I decided to sit out the cage swim and enjoy the spread of barramundi and salad lunch instead.

I travelled with Horizontal Falls Seaplane Tours, but there are many ways to see the Buccaneer Archipelago. Dambi rangers also recommend Jilinya Adventures, Wijingarra Tours, and Kimberley Explorer. Kimberley Quest, Unreel Adventures and Incredible Islands Tour also bring tourists to these remote parts of the Kimberley.

Pay A Visit To Cockatoo Island

Cockatoo Island is said to be particularly special. The island used to be an open-cut iron ore mine and Alan Bond built resort accommodation there in the 1980s. “People come out here to relax and not do much,” said Lorraine, a resort manager. You can float around in the infinity pool, eat at the restaurant, go fishing, or watch the humpback whales migrate up the coast until late October. Plus there’s saltwater croc-spotting. Though they say if you’re looking at one it’s already too late.


The author travelled as a guest of Horizontal Falls Seaplane Adventures.