An unusual tour to a watery graveyard
We are whizzing along the bay in a banana-hued hovercraft, skimming over the milky turquoise waters, sending out a roar like a light plane about to take to the sky. With our guide and pilot Myles holding the yoke and our phones on flight mode, you could be forgiven for thinking we’re indeed aboard an aircraft.
It may feel as if we are flying but we are on a hovercraft above the rich mudflats of Broome’s Roebuck Bay, an area eight times the size of Sydney Harbour and so abundant in critters that it was crowned Australia’s newest marine park last month. “A saltwater crocodile was sat outside the hovercraft base four times recently,” says Lancashire-born Myles, the son-in-law of Roger and June Colless, who have owned Broome Hovercraft for almost 18 years.
Reptiles with snapping jaws were the last things on my mind when my two daughters and I capered about on the salmon pink-sand beach before our 6am departure. But it’s not all Man versus Wild out here on the Kimberley coast; there are also creatures in this bay so charming you’d be tempted to take one home and put it in your bath. However, you’d need a big tub for a dugong, those Zeppelin-shaped mammals that vacuum up the seagrasses growing in abundance in these tropical shallows. For my bathtub at home I’d pick a snubfin dolphin, a species so special that David Attenborough’s film crew has just been here for a month filming its habitat and movements.
In this 13-seater Spirit of Broome hovercraft we follow the edge of the tide, cameras pressed up to the large windows, clicking away at restless wader birds, green sea turtles playing stuck-in-the-mud and eight-legged starfish. After 30 minutes of whizzing along, listening to Myles’s engaging “mini-ology” talks (marine biology, paleontology, geology), we land softly, the black skirt deflates and for a moment I’m back in high school catching a lift in my friend Meredith’s mum’s Citroen DS.
Out of the right window there’s a seagrass meadow exposed by the spring low tide. To the left, about 1km offshore, we see the wrecks of rusted and barnacle-encrusted World War II flying boats, which are exposed when the water depth is 1.3m or lower. Before departure, Roger Colless, a former aircraft engineer in the Australian Navy Aviation Group, has told us the 90-minute tours to see the flying boat wrecks take place about 20 times a year. He says: “With all the cruise ships coming to Broome we’re busier than ever.”
Myles climbs out of the control deck, pops open the butterfly cabin door and we prepare to emerge into the searing mid-October sunshine. It’s only 7am but the temperature is pushing into the low 30s. Barefoot on the wet concrete-like sand, with a damp wood smell in the air, we walk over to the site where 15 anchored flying boats were destroyed during an air raid.
More than 80 people, mostly Dutch fleeing the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, were killed here in March 1942 when Broome became the site of the second most deadly Japanese attack on Australia. Back in February of 1942, the Dutch, British, American and Australian forces fought many battles with the Japanese around the Indonesian archipelago, but as the enemy advanced the allies retreated, and many military planes passed through Broome, transporting Dutch refugees from Java to Perth.
“It’s been 74 years and the sand and marine life help to preserve it,” Myles says. “It’s a war grave so I ask you to not walk on the structures.” While some of the ravaged machines are hard to discern because of the damage they incurred and the removal of parts, there is one Dornier that is clearly visible. Its fuselage, wings and engines sit on the sodden, steely sand like a beached whale.
“The three engine Dornier was like a massive version of the seaplanes that go up to the Horizontal Falls [on the Kimberley Coast],” Myles says. I imagine the men, women and 20-odd children sitting like ducks before their 8am departure. If they hadn’t been delayed by the need to refuel, they may have survived. The surprise raid took place at 9.30am, resulting in “a scene of ghastly devastation”, wrote RAAF pilot officer Frank Russell who was aboard one of the flying boats.
A father, who has walked out from Town Beach, lifts his boy into the cockpit and takes his photo. The little chap laughs like he’s on a coin-operated ride at the shopping centre and I wonder if it’s appropriate to climb on the wrecks for happy snaps. I decide not to let my daughters follow suit and they busy themselves pulling yellow sea cucumbers off the twisted metal.
Now, through the alchemy of time, this setting has transformed from a place of horror and devastation to one of intrigue, solemnity and beauty.
Children examine a wrecked aircraft with the Spirit of Broome in the background, top; a wrecked plane lies in the mud like a beached whale, above left; an old aero engine outside the Broome Hovercraft base, left; hovercraft pilot and local guide Myles and the author’s daughter Tallula, above