Imagine red sandstone rock cliffs plunging into fecund green and blue seas. Picture rays of light from a low sun striking this rock and setting it on fire in its glow. Now envision sparse and tenacious trees standing out on this landscape – their green foliage lit up in the sunlight, and pale, or dark tree trunks in stark contrast to the ruddy sandstone rippled with hues of purple, pale blue, and smoky gray. If you can do all this, you might have a dim image in your mind of the stunning Kimberley Coast off northwest Australia.
While appearing barren and stark, the shores hold a surprising diversity of life forms from shorebirds to crocodiles, and from termites to humpback whales – but more on this later. For now I want to focus on the rocks themselves and the way they have been sculpted over millennia by water both freshwater rains and saltwater tides.
I am here in the dry season and the waterfalls are mere trickles making the rock faces slick and black in a few places. While it would be incredible to see this region with the cascades in full swing, I’m content to experience the persistent sunshine and skeleton bare shorelines of the dry season.
Eons of sand, silt, and mud have been deposited from ancient coral reefs, rivers, and beaches to slowly build up the famous layered sandstone and limestone of the Kimberley. The primeval inertia of tectonic plates colliding has forced the stone up into vertical walls in places.
In other spots, the cliffs reveal steep waves of scrunched up rock; a testimony to the thickness of the layered rock and the forces that have changed its appearance forever.
At the Horizontal Waterfalls, a soft and vertical siltstone layer has eroded away thanks to the force of tides moving through a series on long, skinny bays. Twice daily all the water of the ocean on one side of Talbot Bay must pass through two eroded siltstone gaps to the other side of the bay. The gaps are at least 60 m deep and water rushes through in one direction on an ebbing tide, and then in the opposite direction on the flooding tide.
With our Zodiacs we were able to approach the larger gap and witness first-hand the Horizontal Fall. The force of the tides ripping through the gap pushed our small craft and urged us around with each turn of the tiller.
Another geologic highlight so far has been cruising up into the King George River – truly it is an estuary hedged in by sheer vertical sandstone slabs and cliff faces. I was able to hike to the top of the vast waterfall here, and although the falls were bone dry, the views looking back over the river were stunning. I enjoyed having a chance to see the bare rock edges and envisioning the slow erosion of the stone as falling wet season waters carve out the river’s canyon.
In another couple of days I’ll be back to exploring the Kimberley coast via Zodiac and on foot, and will write again with an insight into some of the fascinating vegetation and wildlife that’s indigenous to this remote and isolated region. Thanks for reading!