Derby king of the Kimberley tides Western Australia

Derby is one of the oldest towns in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, and one of only three towns in the Kimberleys to have a population exceeding 2,000 people – the other two towns being Broome and Kununurra.

The town is 2383 kilometres from Perth via the Great Northern Highway, which is the shortest route.  It is 220 kms north of Broome, which is the biggest town in the Kimberleys.  Derby is located on the tidal mud flats of King Sound, and it has the second most significant tides in the world (after Canada’s Bay of Fundy) and the differential between high and low tides can be as much as 11.8 metres (38 ft), or about as much as a two-storey building.

Derby was first developed as a port on the 1880s; its purpose was to service the growing number of pastoral properties that were being established along the Fitzroy River.  A gold rush at Halls Creek further inland further helped to establish Derby as an important town.

The pastoral and mining industries and administration and tourism continued to be the main impetus in the town.  It is also the Kimberley headquarters for the Royal Flying Doctor Service, which services the Kimberley’s outlying areas.

The boab tree, an unusual bottle-shaped tree that has a very wide trunk and which is related to the baobab trees of Madagascar, is a major feature of Derby. It has been used as a street tree and many of the larger growing natural specimens have been preserved. The famous Boab Prison Tree, which is hollowed out and large enough to use as a cell, is located 7 kilometres from the town.     

Derby is located close to the Buccaneer Archipelago, where there are thousands of small, uninhabited islands.  There are cruise operators in Derby offering cruises that vary from 4 to 14 days from April to October each year.  Because of the distances covered, some of these cruises also offer scenic cruises by seaplane as part of their itinerary.  Places visited during these cruises include Cone Bay which has waterfalls cascading into the sea and pockets of tropical rainforest supporting unusual bird life. They also cruise into Walcott Inlet and Doubtful Bay and the mouths of rivers such as the Sale, Charnley, Isdell, Hunter and Prince Regent with the famous Kings Cascades. Island hopping can include Aboriginal rock painting galleries, whale/dolphin and turtle watching, beach combing, hiking though deep gorges, swimming in fresh water lagoons below cascading waterfalls, or snorkelling in coral lagoons at low tide. Lie on the beach, catch some fish and mud crabs, pick fresh oysters off the rocks, go crocodile spotting, bird watch and photograph to your heart’s content. Camp in comfortable swags on the beach around a camp fire, listen to the sounds of the bush and sea at night and be bathed in brilliant starlight.

They also visit one of the most remarkable natural phenomena in the world.  In fact, Horizontal Falls is the only waterfall to fall sideways instead of vertically.  Massive tidal movements create a waterfall effect as water banks up against one side of the narrow cliff passage, to be repeated again on the turning tide. The twin gaps are part of the McLarty Ranges, which have two ridges running parallel approximately 300 metres apart. The first and most seaward gap is about 20 metres wide and the second, most spectacular, gap is about 10 metres wide.

On a slack tide it is possible to drive boats through the two gaps to the bay behind. The tides in this area have a 10 metre variation which occurs over six and a half hours from low tide to high tide and vice versa. The effect of the waterfalls is created by the tide building up in front of the gaps faster than it can flow through them and there can be a four metre high waterfall between the bays.

Derby is also the western start of the iconic Gibb River Road, a dirt road between Kununurra and Derby that is impassable during the wet season.  Along the Gibb River Road you can visit Kalumburu, Mitchell Plateau, Windjana Gorge, Tunnel Creek, the King Leopold Range and Drysdale National Park.

Although the Gibb River Road is less than 700 kilometres in length, and the road to Kalumburu about 300 kms, it is recommended that you take about seven days to make the journey as there is so much to see.  It is not the sort of landscape you’d want to rush through – you travel such a long way just to get there, it’s worth making a point of dallying a while.

For those who don’t have their own vehicle there are direct flights to Derby from Perth.  However, most people fly to Broome and pick up a car or tour there.  There is also a coach service between Broome and Derby, but this runs only three days a week.  The Kimberleys is a very rugged area and it is not advised that you hitchhike as it is possible to get stranded for long periods.  Visitors really do need to be cautious and to ensure that they advise either the police or the Tourist Information office of the route of their intended travel and the time they expect to take.  Always take more water than you need, spare parts for the car, including at least two spare tyres, a good medical kit, a CB radio or satellite phone as your mobile or cell phone will not get a signal outside of the towns.

Now that I have you worried, just go there and enjoy Derby and the surrounding areas.  In these areas you need to use common sense when travelling.  The best time to visit is from April to October when the weather is at its most comfortable.

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