Mind the gap – a thrilling Horizontal Falls experience in Western Australia

Horizontal Falls from Air

When my wife (finally) retired, we set out on a road trip to visit our son in Darwin.

With time frames and work commitments now irrelevant, our journey was a bit of a meander with a couple of bucket list experiences thrown in for good measure.

At the very top of that list was the Horizontal Falls Seaplane Adventure which departs from Derby.

We chose Derby over Broome so that we could spend more time in Talbot Bay. Just over 100 kilometres to the north of Derby, Talbot Bay in the Buccaneer Archipelago, is one of the most popular and iconic tourist attractions in the Kimberley.

Our day began at 8.30am with a weigh-in at Derby Airport Terminal. We were flying in on Cessna turboprop seaplanes, and weight balance is critical for the flight. There is a 120kg weight limit per person, so you have to reveal your weight when you book so they can plan the seating on board.

Cessna at Pontoon

Our flight out to the bay took 50 minutes. The time varies depending on the tides. If the tides are occurring later in the day you take a scenic flight out, which is longer, but extraordinarily beautiful, then return on the more direct route.

Derby is situated on King Sound and has Australia’s highest tides, which can vary by as much as 11.8 metres between high and low – that’s almost the height of a four-storey building. This is the reason why the Horizontal Falls is such an amazing and unique natural phenomenon. Those tidal waters rush in and out twice a day from the edge of the continental shelf, 600 kms off the WA coastline.

In Talbot Bay the passage of that massive amount of water is restricted by orange sandstone cliffs which dissect the bay. The only way through is via two narrow gaps in those cliffs. This creates a variation in ocean levels of up to four metres, and two powerful and enthralling horizontal waterfalls from one bay to the next.

As we climbed out of Derby you really got to appreciate how expansive the Kimberley truly is. The waters in King Sound are muddy, but as you venture west above Talbot Bay, the waters become a vibrant turquoise colour. This contrasted with the orange cliffs and verdant shrubbery makes for a stunningly picturesque sight. Landing on water was quite gentle.

Talbot Bay

We pulled up at a very large floating pontoon and it was straight off the plane, donning life jackets, to take our seats on a large jet boat, then off at full speed to the gaps.

It was a thrilling ride out to the gaps and we soon reached the first, and biggest gap, 24 metres wide. But it still looks worrisome when you are up close.

This was the ebb tide, heading back out to the continental shelf. 

The skipper was brilliant as he continuously manoeuvred the vessel in order to find the perfect and safest line through the gap. Suddenly, he accelerated and there were audible yelps of enjoyment as the boat bumped its way across the noisy, fast-flowing and turbulent tide, straight through the eye of the gap. Then immediately into a thrilling, steep turn before making several other passes. 

It was an exhilarating, exciting, loud, and a massively fun adventure.

We also checked out the much smaller six-metre gap, but, following an accident, boats are now banned from traversing it.

It was back to the pontoon for morning tea, then immediately onto a boat for a more leisurely tour of Talbot Bay. 

This land is ancient, and the hills are part of the McLarty Range. We humans are dwarfed by this environment, where there is very little sign of habitation.

We returned to the pontoon for lunch and an opportunity to swim in the pontoon’s saltwater pool.

One of the staff members began knocking on the metal pontoon and sharks arrived to share the pool. Fortunately, they were separated from swimmers by sturdy metal bars. It was feeding time for the sharks; the humans had been looked after. These were mainly tawny nurse sharks, which are harmless, but one bull shark was there for a free feed as well.


We were out on the boats again, for the tide was rising, and the speed of the incoming water was a lot faster than the retreating water. Much bumpier and louder too, as it tried to push its way through the entrance to the inner bay. 

This was a truly humungous adventure!

We enjoyed a scenic flight back to Derby. Talbot Bay is such an awesomely scenic place.

My wife and I paid full price for the tour (about $900 each), and would willingly do it again, but, next time, would also check tide times and sizes in order to further enhance our visit.