For years, tourists have driven boats through this sacred Australian natural wonder. A new ban will stop them

By | March 29, 2024

The Horizontal Falls are one of Australia’s strangest natural attractions, a unique blend of coastal geography and powerful tidal forces that visitors pay big money to see up close.

But that’s all about to change.

Located on Talbot Bay, a remote spot on the country’s northwestern coastline, the falls are formed when waves of seawater flow between two narrow cliff holes, creating a swell of up to four meters that resembles a waterfall.

For decades, tours have pierced these holes on powerful boats, much to the dismay of the area’s indigenous traditional owners, who say the site is sacred.

It’s not the only reason why the boat trips are controversial. In May 2022, a boat hit the rocks, injuring passengers and sparking a major rescue operation. The incident led to calls to stop the tours for safety reasons.

Although the boat trips have continued, the concerns of Indigenous Traditional Owners have now been heeded, with Western Australia, the state in which the falls are located, saying they will be banned in 2028 out of respect.

Close-up views are still allowed

Tourists on a speedboat race over the horizontal falls in Talbot Bay, Western Australia.  - Jeff Mauritzen/Design Pics Editorial/Getty Images

Tourists on a speedboat race over the horizontal falls in Talbot Bay, Western Australia. – Jeff Mauritzen/Design Pics Editorial/Getty Images

Not everyone is happy with the move. The WA Tourism Council, which represents tourism businesses in the state, has warned this will deter visitors and cause major job losses.

But it is welcomed by the Dambeemangaddee people, who have inhabited the area for 56,000 years and believe boats desecrate the falls.

Located in the Kimberley region, 1,900 kilometers (1,180 miles) north of the capital Perth, the Horizontal Falls are in Maiyalam, one of three protected marine parks established in 2022 that were co-designed and now co-managed by Traditional Owners and the WA Government.

The Western Australian government’s move comes amid criticism over its commitment to protecting Indigenous areas in a state heavily dependent on mining.

Talbot Bay’s main boat tour operator, Horizontal Falls Seaplane Adventures, will stop traversing the falls in March 2028, while all other operators will stop by the end of 2026.

After the ban comes into effect, boats will still be allowed to travel across Talbot Bay, giving visitors a close-up view of the waterfall spectacle that British naturalist David Attenborough has called “Australia’s most unusual natural attraction.”

“This decision reflects the government’s dual responsibilities to respect the cultural views of traditional owners and the need to protect and support WA’s tourism industry,” WA Environment Minister Reece Whitby said in a statement.

“We want people to experience Indigenous culture as an essential, vibrant part of visiting co-managed national and marine parks in Western Australia.”

The Dambeemangaddee are among dozens of indigenous peoples who inhabited WA for more than 50,000 years before Australia was violently colonized by the British in the 1780s. Numerous parcels of land under indigenous control were subsequently seized or contaminated.

‘Respect the power of this place’

After the ban comes into effect, boats will still be allowed to travel across Talbot Bay, allowing visitors to get a close-up view of the attraction.  - Jeff Mauritzen/Design Pics Editorial/Getty ImagesAfter the ban comes into effect, boats will still be allowed to travel across Talbot Bay, allowing visitors to get a close-up view of the attraction.  - Jeff Mauritzen/Design Pics Editorial/Getty Images

After the ban comes into effect, boats will still be allowed to travel across Talbot Bay, allowing visitors to get a close-up view of the attraction. – Jeff Mauritzen/Design Pics Editorial/Getty Images

The ban on Horizontal Falls aims to restore the sanctity of this place. According to local indigenous beliefs, boats that pierce these holes disturb Woongudd, the mystical serpent that created this wonder.

The story of Woongudd appears in the Dreamtime, an ancient collection of stories and principles that have defined Australian Aboriginal culture. The rushing tide at the falls is said to be caused by Woongudd floating between the cliffs.

Since the 1990s, traditional owners have raised concerns that boat trips are damaging this “powerful, sacred place,” the Dambeemangaddee said in a group statement, responding to the ban.

“This has been an emotionally difficult journey for many of us,” they wrote. “With this decision we finally feel like we have been heard. Our ancestors lived there all year round and we still feel their presence. It is a quiet, calm place. But it can be dangerous. Culturally, traditional owners would only travel through the (cliff) gorges for a specific purpose and always at the right time.”

The Dambeemangaddee emphasized that they hope that tourists will continue to visit the Horizontal Falls. They believe tourists can be blinded by the tidal forces while still maintaining a polite distance.

“Respect the power of this place and our cultural obligations to care for Country and keep you safe,” they asked visitors, referring to their age-old role as stewards of the Australian landscape.

In preparation for the Horizontal Falls ban, the Dambeemangaddee said they have begun creating new videos and brochures that will explain their culture and spiritual connection to Talbot Bay. They are also creating new tours, welcome ceremonies and a visitor management plan for the site.

Critics fear that the ban will reduce visitor numbers

Other attractions in the Kimberley region include the Bungle Bungles, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  - Tourism AustraliaOther attractions in the Kimberley region include the Bungle Bungles, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  - Tourism Australia

Other attractions in the Kimberley region include the Bungle Bungles, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. – Tourism Australia

Horizontal Falls Seaplane Adventures said in a statement that it will transition to a “culturally appropriate program that allows visitors to experience the spectacular natural wonder of Horizontal Falls in a respectful context.”

The boat ban at the falls was criticized by Tourism Council WA CEO Evan Hall, who said the activity had long attracted visitors to the Kimberley. He added that a ban on this would affect 15 tourism operators and cause the estimated loss of 58 full-time jobs in the region.

“By traversing the falls, visitors experience the awe-inspiring nature of this unique environment,” Hall said in a statement earlier this month.

“It’s not something you can experience from the sidelines. National parks are public lands and waters that belong to everyone. The legislative purpose of National Parks includes promoting and facilitating nature tourism and public recreation – this is not achieved by restricting visitor access.”

However, the ban was supported by Sally Shaw, CEO of Kimberley Day Cruise, who told CNN that the company’s Horizontal Falls tours only venture close to, and not between, these cliffs. She says drilling the falls is both dangerous and disrespectful to the traditional owners.

“We do not pass over the falls for safety and cultural reasons and have never done so on our tour,” Shaw said.

“Most people who do these tours have cultural understanding and recognize that the future is an enduring national treasure that we can all appreciate in safety.”

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