Learning > Travel

Bountiful Broome

The Western Australian beach resort town, which began life as a pearling settlement, boasts stunning sunsets and natural wonders

Image
Lydia Vasko on 05 Aug 2018

The Straits Times

Share

Facebook Email


Bumping and bouncing along a red dirt road less than 20 minutes outside of Broome, I have already lost cell phone reception. Not that I am surprised.

 

It takes only 20 minutes to drive through the entire town, winding your way round one traffic circle after another, because Broome has no traffic lights.

 

Traffic lights are not the only things missing here.

 

No one in this relaxed beach community of 16,000 people, cradled on a spit of land between the Indian Ocean and the monumental wilderness of north Western Australia, has a mailbox.

 

Residents here pick up their mail directly from the post office. I wonder but never learn how often snail mail even gets delivered here, a place so far from urban glass and steel.

 

Once you have left the town, there are no paved roads to the north, just kilometre after kilometre of cattle stations, national park and rust-coloured earth.

 

The nearest town, Derby, with a population of just 4,500, is 220km away. The state capital Perth is more than 2,000km to the south and it would take more than 20 hours to drive to Darwin, the nearest city.

 

Until SilkAir launched a handful of chartered flights to Broome last May, the airport had not had an international flight in almost 20 years.

 

When I told non-Australians that I was going to Broome, no one had heard of it. They genuinely thought I was going to sweep my house.

 

Yet, it is precisely this off-beat nature which lures people to Broome - a balm against the fast-paced city life, constant connectivity and urban noise that nevertheless offers the creature comforts of five-star accommodation and fantastic food.

Broome is a popular holiday destination for domestic travellers drawn to its vast white sandy beaches and access to the breathtaking Kimberley region of ancient red rocks, deep gorges and dramatic cliff-lined coast.

 

Thousands flock here during the dry season from May to October, returning year after year when the weather cools and there is not a cloud in the voluminous blue sky.

 

It is the perfect time of year to experience Broome's activities and natural wonders: bird-watching, fishing, mud-crabbing, watching snub-nosed dolphins and whales, visiting World War II relics submerged in Broome's Roebuck Bay, and the Staircase to the Moon, when the full moon reflects in tide pools across the bay to the horizon.

 

To experience them all, you have to be flexible with your schedule because so many of Broome's activities depend on the weather, the seasons and the region's deep tides.

 

High winds mean our dolphin-watching tour on the bay is cancelled, so my group and I head to Pearl Luggers, a small museum in Broome's Chinatown, as its downtown area is called.

 

Before Broome was a beach retreat, it began life as a pearling settlement. Its fame, in fact, comes from its pearls, which are some of the best cultured South Sea pearls in the world.

 

In the mid-1800s, colonial explorers saw local Aboriginal tribes wearing luminous riji, which are ceremonial ornaments made of rare mother-of-pearl oyster shells.

 

The largest pearl-producing oysters in the world - enormous with some shells the size of a steering wheel - were growing naturally in the sheltered bays all along the coast.

 

By the turn of the 20th century, Broome was one of the wealthiest towns in Australia.

 

By 1910, 80 per cent of the world's mother-of-pearl was coming from Broome and much of it was sold through Singapore to become precious buttons, combs, mirrors and inlay for ornaments for the world's wealthy.

 

Divers came from Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia and China to work in the lucrative industry.

 

Many stayed and married people from the local Aboriginal communities and are buried in the well-maintained Japanese and Malay cemeteries.

 

It is a hot walk around Broome's Chinatown, made up of about four square blocks of pearl jewellery stores, restaurants and historic buildings.

 

Here is where you find Sun Pictures (www.broomemovies.com.au/sun-pictures.html), the world's oldest outdoor picture garden, which has been screening movies since 1916.

 

Patrons watch the latest Hollywood blockbuster while seated in low-slung canvas chairs under the open sky, surrounded by vintage movie posters and memorabilia.

 

At Pearl Luggers (bit.ly/2ODm3eq), our guide is Mr Rahim Hatim, 23, who is of Aboriginal, Malay, Indonesian and Japanese heritage. "Most local indigenous people in Broome have Asian influence in their family tree," he said. "In the early 1900s, Europeans were outnumbered by Asians 150 to one."

 

He recounts the hardship of life as a pearl diver; of blackbirding, when Aboriginals were enslaved and forced to dive to extreme depths for the shells; the brothels and opium dens and the dangers of harvesting oysters from the ocean floor.

 

When plastic was invented in the 1950s, global demand for mother-of-pearl plummeted and Broome's pearling industry switched to producing pristine cultured pearls, now ubiquitous in Broome.

 

A few of the pearl farms, including Willie Creek Pearls (www.williecreekpearls.com.au), about a 45-minute drive outside of Broome, provide informative tours about the labour-intensive pearl-making process.

 

But if you can tolerate the rough roads and what is euphemistically called the "Kimberley Massage", continue on Cape Leveque Road, travelling over the deep ridges and ruts of carmine dust up the Dampier Peninsula.

 

It is an unforgiving and remote terrain, and a bumpy 21/2-to three-hour coach ride, with our driver from Adams Pinnacle Tours (www.adamspinnacletours.com.au).

 

Our first stop is Beagle Bay Aboriginal Community, where we visited the Sacred Heart Church.

 

Built in 1918 by Pallottine monks and local Aborigines, the interior of the church is decorated in extraordinary mosaics and an altar made of mother-of-pearl shell.

 

We then continued to Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm (www.cygnetbaypearlfarm.com.au), 200km north of Broome, which has been owned and operated by four generations of the Brown family for more than 70 years.

 

It is here that I get my first view of the Kimberley landscape, of red rocks cascading to silvery sand and bright turquoise seas, with sprinklings of olive-coloured bush in between.

 

At once vivid and serene, the scene is unlike any palette I have seen. This is why people return again and again and perhaps why some never leave.

We are taken on an excellent tour of the property and the intricate pearl-farming process.

 

I am enchanted by the silence, the peaceful ripple of the waves, the alluring cliffs and the lustre of the pearls.

 

I spend more than I should on a set of earrings and a shimmering milky pearl, but I have no regrets - they are precious mementos of a time, a place and a feeling that I never want to forget.

 

But you need not drive for hours to see the beauty of the region.

 

At Gantheaume Point, a promontory about 6km or a 15-minute drive from the centre of Broome, the Kimberley cliffs drop dramatically into brilliant blue seas.

 

It is the perfect spot to admire the scenery and the long stretch of Cable Beach, which starts here and goes on for 22km to the north.

 

During the low tide, people come in search of ancient dinosaur footprints embedded in the rocks.

 

It is also a spectacular place to watch Broome's stunning sunsets, which are some of the best I have seen.

 

Broome locals seem to agree.

 

Every evening, dozens of four-wheel-drive cars and trucks trundle across the rocks and onto Cable Beach, which becomes a temporary highway as the vehicles make their way up the coast.

 

Visitors park right on the beach, light a grill, pull out some snacks and enjoy dinner as the sun sets.

 

A unique way to experience a Broome sunset is while riding a camel.

 

Two companies - Red Sun Camels and Broome Camel Safaris - offer multiple group camel rides a day, each lasting 30 minutes to an hour, depending on the time of day.

 

Come late afternoon, dozens of the dromedaries lumber across the beach in guided lines, lulling their riders into meditative bliss as they stare across the vivid horizon.

 

One evening, atop a camel's back, I watch the sun paint the sea and sky spectacular swirls of lavender, pink and gold as it slips behind the Indian Ocean.

 

Every moment, the colours become deeper, the light shines brighter, orange and purple beams reflect across the ocean and the camel's eyelashes flutter 30cm from my knees.

 

The only sound I hear is the lapping of the waves and it is nothing short of magical.

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.