OUTBACK POST BY THE SEA
Broome has come a long way since its days as a pearling town
There is so much more to Broome than its worldfamous Cable Beach. You won’t hear any argument that its white sand and turquoise waters are stunning but the town itself is my favourite. It manages to remain exotic and shimmering but as laid-back as an old thong and an Esky at the same time.
It is a tourist magnet with homely cafes and desirable outdoor restaurants, and a frontier town where locals boast about the number of snakes they have killed and how they turned their old Toyota into a camper and do you want a beer while they show you how they did it?
Broome and the surrounding Kimberley region of Western Australia are on so many bucket lists, and a visit has never been easier with direct flights to Broome from every mainland capital city apart from Adelaide. About 400,000 passengers a year fly into Broome International Airport. The title might sound a tad ambitious but the airport is lobbying to welcome direct flights from Singapore. One third of visitors are from the eastern states and most of the rest fly in from Darwin and Perth.
But you wouldn’t fly all that way just to lie on Cable Beach, and anyone who doesn’t stray far from the upmarket resorts behind the beach will never know what they are missing.
To get the most out of Broome you have to appreciate its history. A must read is John Bailey’s The White Divers
of Broome, the amazing tale of the failed and fatal experiment over 100 years ago to replace cheap but superb Asian divers on the fleet of pearling luggers with white men in copper helmets and diving suits.
It is a window into a time when Broome was, as the author describes it, “an Asian wild west”. Its indigenous history clashed with a place of enormous wealth built on the price of mother-of-pearl with the town’s stores selling French champagne and oranges shipped from Italy.
A must visit is the museum on dusty Robinson St, opposite tapas restaurant, 18 Degrees, where the outdoor tables share views of Roebuck Bay. The museum based in the Old Customs House doesn’t look much from the outside but inside is a treasure trove of diving equipment, sepia photographs, black and white newsreels, pioneering history and relics of World War II when Broome was attacked by the Japanese.
On Dampier Tce, where a century ago about 400 pearl luggers would come ashore, is the pearling museum alongside two restored luggers where you can imagine the hardship of life on board.
Tucked away in Barker St, the Old Convent campus tells the story of the nine Sisters of St John of God who arrived from Ireland in 1907 to minister to the Aboriginal women and children. The campus’s archives trace the 110 years of history.
On very low tides you can see the wrecks of the flying boats that were strafed by the Japanese in the second worst air raid in Australia’s history. Some of the wrecks are visible just a 1km walk over the mud flats from Town Beach but remember this coast has the biggest tides in the southern hemisphere and you don’t want to be caught out. It is easier to book a trip with Broome Hovercraft, which picks you up from your hotel.
The Broome Hovercraft also takes visitors to a time even further back in the past – to dinosaur footprints left 120 million years ago, said to be some of the best preserved in the world.
In the centre of town the courthouse looks like it comes from another era with its wide verandas but it is still dispensing justice today after being converted from the original cable station in 1921.
On Saturday and Sunday mornings, you’ll find a busy market. There are enough stalls with food and decent goods to stop the Courthouse Markets degenerating into cheap tourist tat. Night markets are held at Town Beach from June to September.
Chinatown is the original shopping centre of Broome and along the open air mall called Johnny Chi Lane are storyboards depicting what the area used to be like. Today, it hosts the town’s biggest souvenir shop as well as clothes stores and an outdoor cafe.
If you are going to buy pearls, Broome is the place to do it. You don’t have to be an expert to get what you want. There is cheaper imported pearl jewellery but if the price is too good to be true then you know it’s not the real deal. Pearl giants such as Paspaley, Allure, Cygnet Bay and Willie Creek have shops in town.
With a backdrop of red rock that glows in the sunset and powdery sand with clear turquoise water, the best beaches by far are on Cape Leveque at the remote wilderness camp owned and run by the indigenous Bardi Jawi communities, the Kooljaman. These beaches are crocodile-free but the locals tell you to be crocodile-aware.
Kooljaman is said to be one of the remotest resorts in the world and you can camp or glamp it here.
BEST NIGHT OUT
Start with a beer or wine at the Roebuck Bay Hotel, known as the Roey, then pop next door for a movie at Sun Pictures, the world’s oldest
THIS IS A FRONTIER TOWN WHERE LOCALS BOAST ABOUT THE NUMBER OF SNAKES THEY HAVE KILLED
picture gardens still in operation. Then stroll around the corner to The Aarli for Asian-inspired food.
BEST PLACES TO STAY
This is a tough one because there are places for all prices. The Mangrove Hotel is good value and close to the centre of town while the Courthouse Bed and Breakfast is a hidden gem. It looks like an old sea captain’s home but it was purpose-built only a few years ago. The rooms are vast and the property has its own pool, and they’ll even do an airport pick up.
OUT OF TOWN ADVENTURE
Having travelled this far it would be a crime not to go that bit further and join a cruise. Kimberley Quest II is a perfect size at 18 guests, you can take your own wine and other drinks (which most other boats do not allow), the food is sensational, cabins are small but the bathrooms are full size. The crew know the area so well that you meet all kinds of locals like Old Don who lives up the mangrove creeks in a former fishing lodge and is the most northerly resident of WA.
Or you can hitch a lift with the postie to the communities up on Cape Leveque. If hiring a car and battling the corrugated red road is not for you, join the mail-run tourist bus which can be a round trip or one way. It will take you to the famous Beagle Bay Church with its pearl-shell interior, Kooljaman, Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm and all the other communities along the Dampier Peninsula.
Most hire car companies will let you take their four-wheel drives up those bush roads, but you have to check. Broome Broome car rental is one of the best. Sadly, we wrote off a hired Prado when we hit a wild donkey on the road to Cape Leveque. More than 50 cars stopped to help, the local ambulance came from Beagle Bay (we weren’t hurt) but, most importantly, Broome Broome sent a replacement car on the tow truck and took our car back.
Luckily, we had paid the extra $50 a day for top insurance cover so it cost us no excess. You would have rocks in your head if you didn’t take out top cover when driving on dirt roads.
BEAGLE BAY CHURCH
Gantheaume Point Dinosaur footprints set in concrete to show you what to look for. A red rock cliff face overlooking the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean, Near the town of Broome Western Australia. Picture: iStock