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Monstrous tides of the Kimberley coast

In Western Australia's Kimberley region, 11m tides create dramatic ocean waterfalls while the same ocean movements sustain the country's oldest operating pearl farm

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Carolyn Beasley on 28 Jul 2019

The Straits Times

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Our small runabout boat employs 900-horsepower to surge closer to a small gap in the cliffs, only 12m wide. Funnelling through the opening is an avalanche of white water and the boat is buffeted by powerful, swirling eddies.

 

It is a spectacle reminiscent of a great river gorge, but this is no river. This is the ocean and the force driving the water is none other than the tide.

 

The skipper edges the boat closer to the opening and I can see the mounded-up water through the gap, cascading several metres downhill towards me.

 

Much to my relief, the skipper announces that with this much flow, it is not safe to take the boat through the gap. Not yet, anyway.

 

The formation, known as the Horizontal Falls, occurs in Talbot Bay in Western Australia's north-western Kimberley region.

 

The Kimberley tides, at more than 11m in height, are the largest tropical tides in the world and among the biggest tides on the planet.

 

I had seen the falls from the air as we arrived by seaplane from the town of Broome with Horizontal Falls Seaplane Adventures (horizon talfallsadventures.com.au) on a half-day tour.

 

Our pilot had banked over the two natural ocean reservoirs that funnel through two narrow gaps - 12m and 25m wide - in the McLarty Ranges.

 

Descending through a curving gorge of sheer rock walls, the seaplane touched down lightly before taxiing to a floating pontoon.

 

After viewing the falls, our guide explains that the Kimberley region is rich in marine life.

 

Within the safety of a mesh cage built into the pontoon, I don a mask and a snorkel. Our guide drops in some fish scraps and eight wild tawny nurse sharks materialise outside my cage, some almost 3m long. Although not a threat to humans, the sharks slurp up the fish with startling efficiency, while I get a close-up view of their tiny razor-sharp teeth.

 

The monstrous tides affect all life on the Kimberley coast. Nearby, Kooljaman (kooljaman.com.au) is a wilderness camp, 220km north of Broome at Cape Leveque, owned and run by the Bardi Jawi.

 

INDIGENOUS COMMUNITIES

 

With a history dating back at least 40,000 years, Bardi culture is alive and kicking.

 

Bardi elder and tour guide, Mr Bundy Chaquebor, is quietly spoken and explains that tides have always been at the heart of his culture.

 

"We are saltwater people. We need to understand the tides or we could drown."

 

He laughs and adds: "Or these days, we can lose our car."

 

Aboriginal-led cultural tours here vary from spear making to sunset cruises to immobilising fish in pools with a natural poison.

 

One of Mr Chaquebor's favourite tours is night fishing in small pools on a receding tide using spears. Catching your own Kimberley mud crabs is also a highlight for visitors.

 

The elephant in the room is the threat of crocodiles, but Mr Chaquebor is reassuring. "I can feel the crocodiles and snakes," he says. "There's none here today."

 

Accommodation options at Kooljaman include cabins, camping and elevated safari tents with sweeping views of the ocean and red cliffs meeting the white beach.

 

On-site restaurant Raugi serves food that belies its remote location, featuring indigenous cuisine, such as the bush tucker tasting platter with smoked kangaroo and emu, or the locally farmed barramundi and chips.

 

PEARLS OF WISDOM

 

Fifteen minutes' drive from Kooljaman is Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm (cygnetbaypearlfarm.com. au), where tidal forces are critical for business.

 

Third-generation pearl farmer James Brown, a marine biologist, explains the importance of huge tides. "Pearl oysters feed by filtering the nutrients out of the water, and a big pearl oyster can pump up to 150 litres an hour," he says. "If you have 1,000 pearl shells, you need a lot of water."

 

The oldest operating pearl farm in Australia, the company survived the global financial crisis which decimated the pearling industry, and the farm diversified into pearl farm tours in 2009.

 

Cygnet Bay now offers a variety of accommodation, including my stylish eco-tent overlooking the ocean, with a king-size bed, ensuite and glorious morning birdsong.

 

For an insight into pearling, I join Bardi guide Terry Hunter, a fourth-generation employee at Cygnet Bay and a childhood friend of Mr Brown's.

 

The company breeds its own pearl oysters in a hatchery, selecting the strongest oysters that have performed well despite rising sea temperatures associated with global warming.

 

Mr Hunter pulls a large oyster from a tub of bubbling seawater, explaining how this oyster has previously been implanted with a nucleus that stimulates the production of a pearl.

 

Our group collectively gasps as he slices open the oyster's pearl sac, revealing a large, lustrous orb that will retail for A$1,120 (S$1,070).

 

Next is a hands-on pearl grading lesson with Ms Tamika Michie, who tutors us at a table containing hundreds of pearls of varying quality.

 

She explains the five virtues of pearls; size, shape, colour, surface and lustre.

 

Producing not only pearls, but also wisdom, Mr Brown established the Kimberley Marine Research Station on the grounds, which collaborates with many marine science organisations throughout Australia.

 

He says the lack of research facilities in the Kimberley region was hampering scientific progress.

 

"There's probably less known about the Kimberley marine environment than there is about the moon," he says. "This is something I could offer - access to the Kimberley coast."

 

RARE MARINE ECOLOGY

 

Mr Brown wants visitors to experience the tides first hand and, as instructed, I wait for my boat on a raised gangway, some 150m from the beach.

 

I am wondering if it is a joke when my boat chugs into view - being driven down the road like a car, an amphibious boat on retractable wheels.

 

Driving then motoring to deeper water, we transfer to Cygnet Bay's speedy tour boat and indigenous skipper Balla, or Dennis Davey, tells us traditional stories as we discover islands inhabited by mighty eagles and water bobbing with sea turtles.

 

In Escape Passage, giant eddies pull our boat in various directions as marine biologist Ben Leeson says: "Every six hours, 66 billion litres of water, that's 116 Sydney Harbours, fills or drains nearby King Sound, and this is one of the main exit points for that water."

 

At Waterfall Reef, the falling tide pours out of an ancient, living reef, creating a cascading wall of seawater unlike anything I have ever experienced.

 

Mr Brown hopes that taking people to the Kimberley coast inspires them to protect it.

 

"An 11m tide translates into huge currents, massive intertidal zones and massively diverse and rare marine ecology."

 

He adds: "That tidal movement, that power of our environment, is really what people connect with. It's an innate animal response to something that is furiously powerful."

 

Back at the Horizontal Falls, we have time to board the speedboat for one more look at the gap.

 

The outgoing tide is now almost slack and soon, the Horizontal Falls will reverse with the incoming tide.

 

Without warning, our skipper accelerates and I shriek with laughter and exhilaration.

 

As we roar between the narrow cliffs over the churning water, my heart is pounding, pushing blood through my veins like a surging Kimberley tide.

 

• Carolyn Beasley is an Australian freelance travel and environment writer.

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.

 

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