Horizontal waterfalls, seaplane flights, shark cages, camel rides, and lip-smacking food. Our contributor relishes a slice of Western Australia on a unique itinerary. By Rishad Saam Mehta
I threw open the window of my room at the Mangrove Hotel, and the sky was a fiery red. So red that for a moment I thought that the town of Broome was on fire. But in reality, it was just the sun flirting with rain-laden clouds from just below the horizon. There had been
a gusty storm playing out over the region through the night; now, it seemed to be abating.
Broome is a beach resort town in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. My adventurous plan was to hop on a seaplane flight—with five friends—to the Horizontal Falls near Kimbolton, which is a 45-minute flight or a 10-hour drive away. Then the seaplane would drop us off at Kooljaman at Cape Leveque, nearly 210 kilometres to the north of Broome on the Dampier Peninsula. Our luggage, in the meantime, would be transported to Kooljaman by road since the seaplane could not carry the burden of both, the people and
their luggage. But Australia had other plans for us.
Sitting in the seaplane was like sitting in a van with stiff suspension. The single-engine Cessna rode all the gusts of wind—prevalent thanks to the recent storm—like bumps on a road, as we sat on bench seats amid the burble of the exhaust. As we neared the Horizontal Falls, our pilot dived down so that we’d get a clear view from the perspective of a soaring eagle.
One of the greatest
Some of my co-flyers even screeched like excited birds of prey as the Cessna rapidly dumped altitude. From my window seat, I took a few pictures but then put my camera aside to soak in the natural phenomenon that David Attenborough once described as ‘one of the greatest wonders of the natural world’.
We were over Talbot Bay, and I could see two breaks in the hillocks across the bay. These breaks are what cause the ‘horizontal waterfalls’. Water—moving fast due to tidal cycles—tries to rush through these gaps, but the sheer velocity and volume is so great that a bottleneck is created, causing a pile-up of water on one side and a drop of up to 10 metres, called the Horizontal Falls. From the sky, it just looked like a frothy stream. Within a few moments, we landed in the bay and taxied up to a floating pontoon, where we were treated to a sumptuous breakfast of fried eggs, bacon, muffins, and fresh bread. But I kept myself in check, because soon after that, we hopped on to a speedboat to see the Horizontal Falls from up close.
Bobbing in the water just before the gap, I realised just how monstrous the hydro forces at play were, as millions of cubic litres of water was squeezed through the gap by the muscle of the tide. Our skipper told us that we had about 20 minutes before the tide became too strong and would challenge even the 900 horses of the outboard motors. So all of us gripped the handles and seat-backs tightly, and the speedboat roared through the larger gap. If I thought that the sheer walls of the ranges were too close in that gap, I was in for a scarier surprise at the next one, because that gap was even smaller. In Australia, safety is like the state religion, so I knew I was perfectly safe. But it was terrifying and exciting all the same to experience the raw force of nature at such close quarters.
Back at the pontoon there was another kind ofclose encounter waiting. In the centre was a sunken shark cage. There are enough heady odours around the pontoon, so there are always sharks hanging about, and soon, I saw grey tawny sharks come up to the cage.
They don’t have the menacing look or the scary dental visage of the Great White, but the deckhand warned us that tawny sharks have as many as 240 small, but sharp, backward-facing teeth, and that a strong suck could strip the tendons off a human arm. That warning was enough for me to keep my hands off the cage walls.
‘Oh no! The road’s flooded!’ Word reached us on the seaplane’s radio that the truck carrying our luggage to Kooljaman had turned back towards Broome because the road was flooded, thanks to overnight downpour.
So, instead of going forward, the pilot flew us back to Broome, where we chartered another Cessna and flew to Kooljaman—this time along with our luggage. The landing strip at Cape Leveque reminded me of Jurassic Park. There was an unsealed runway and a hut with a corrugated roof—these two structures make up the airport. Of course, there are no dinosaurs waiting to devour the new arrivals. Instead, there’s Fenn with an icebox, filled with cold beer, in his bus.
Kooljaman at Cape Leveque is a remote wilderness camp owned and run by the indigenous Bardi Jawi communities. We were shown around by Bundi, whose family have been living on this land since time immemorial. It was fascinating to hear him talk about how nature and spirituality are so harmoniously entwined in local folklore, and how the land gives in abundance if it is respected and not violated. His talk of local food (fish, crabs, and meat) and the aboriginal art of slow cooking using natural fuel had me salivating.
Fortunately, our dinner that night was at Kooljaman’s in-house restaurant called Raugis. I was quite stunned, because for a place whose airport terminal can be dismantled in an hour by a team of four, the food was far better than what I’ve eaten at some sparkling international airports. The pork belly was done to perfection, with crackling fat and meat perfectly complementing each other. The oysters were fresh off the boat, with the delicious taste of the Indian Ocean still lingering in them. And the tiramisu was so exquisite that Rome could take lessons from it.
Our digs for that night were at Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm, a 30-minute drive away. Fenn from the Pearl Farm drove us there in what was essentially a truck modified to serve as a bus. The accommodation was basic—in tents with attached bathrooms. But the location was fantastic and offered refreshing sea views. By this time, I had come to realise that it was difficult to have a bad meal on the continent. Food is revered in Australia, and serving anything less than spectacular is sacrilege. The nasi goreng topped with a fried egg, sunny
side up, that I had for breakfast was lip-smacking.
That morning, we hopped onto a boat at Cygnet Bay and roared off to another waterfall—this one right in the middle of the ocean! The tides are instrumental in creating this unique waterfall as well. But before that, the skipper took us on a joyride, pointing out
the abundance of islands that form the Buccaneer Archipelago. Some of the world’s largest tropical tides take place here, and the presence of a reef leads to a cascading waterfall in the middle of the ocean.
As the name suggests, Cygnet Bay is a Pearl Farm, and once we were back to our digs, Sammy showed us around, offering insight into the fascinating history of pearling, and explained how some of the most beautiful and sought-after pearls in the world are cultivated at Cygnet Bay. He split open an oyster and harvested a beautiful, luminescent round pearl from it. The tour also included an in-depth pearl appreciation session, but it
wasn’t really my cup of tea.
What made ‘my cup runneth over’, though, was the sundowner at the Master Pearler’s Private Retreat—a self-contained accommodation 20 minutes away by boat. Watching the sun going down while sipping on some of Australia’s fantastic white wine was the perfect
curtain call to my time at Kooljaman.
Giving in to the cliche
Back in Broome, I simply had to partake in the activity that is splashed across most tourist brochures of the town: a sunset camel ride on the beach. The camels aren’t native to Australia, but were brought over from India and Palestine between 1840 and 1860. Today, however, there are plenty of camels in Australia, and they thrive because the conditions are ideal for them. I can understand the fascination for a camel ride among other tourists, but for someone who grew up in India, the draw wasn’t so much the camel as the spectacular sunset.
The final flourish of my Western Australia itinerary was a meal at Matso’s Broome Brewery. The Madras prawn curry rice here lived up to my curry benchmark, the one set by my neighbour, Mrs Ventakakutty. They also had plenty of funky beers, and I
tasted them all. My favourite one turned out to be Angry Ranga, an in-house ginger beer mixed with an in-house chilli beer. Zingy and spicy! It was the perfect combination of food and drink that lulled me into a satisfied slumber on my three-hour flight back to Perth.