On a long weekend in Broome, AT editor Greg Barton resists the temptation to slip into the coma-like state known as Broome Time. There’s simply too much to see and do.

Broome’s unofficial patron, Lord Alistair McAlpine, seems to have owned most of the town at one stage or another. He was recently heard to say that he looks forward to the day when he can return to Australia to “walk up and down Cable Beach at six o’clock in the morning as the sun comes up, watch the birds and the fish eagles take a catch of fish, and the wildlife, and just relax in that wonderful stage of half sleep they call Broome Time . . .”

If you’ve been to Broome, you can sort of see where he’s coming from. It’s designed to be an extremely relaxing place – but only if you have oodles of time at your disposal. Otherwise, there’s just way too much to see and do to be caught sliding too deeply into Broome Time. Broome is a town with the contrast set perpetually on high. The colours are bright. The days are long. The heat is palpable.

And its most recognisable trait, beyond the camel trains plodding slowly alongCableBeach, is that famous three-fold collision of contrasts, where the red pindan soil folds onto the vast white beaches before slipping gracefully, gratefully, into the cool blue ocean.

When I visit, I’m surprised to find that there are no flies. Perhaps they find it too hot? By contrast, there are quite a few snakes, which reckon the heat is just about right. Backpackers, in much the same mind as the snakes, visit in numbers. Ghost gums line the streets, their brilliant surfaces so white and polished they look regularly hosed down. Boabs hang around in groups, popping up in surprising places like school grounds, car parks and quiet suburban front yards – surprising because they generally signify the heart of the Kimberley, or at least Derby, both of which are miles from here.

Toursand activities abound using Broome as a launching pad, whether it’s a full day’s seaplane flight out to the Horizontal Falls, or a 4WD tackling of the Gibb River Road. But one of the best ways to experience Broome itself, with all its contrasts, history, character and colours, is to get in there and zoom around on a scooter. I admit to being a bit of a pushover in this regard. With scooters prominently involved, you could spend a long weekend in an oil refinery and still have a great time.

Zoom and vroom through boomtown Broome

Of course Broome is no oil refinery, containing instead all the elements you’d expect from a frontier town (like museums, historic graveyards, pretty churches, a Chinatown and quality markets showcasing the works of sublime local photographers) as well as a few unexpected pleasures (like hovercrafts). The beauty of the scooter in this setting, and Darwin is similar, is the ability to really feel the heat, sense the mood of the town, and get a mental map of where everything is in relation to everything else.

For example, a quick zoom from Cable Beach to visit supposedly the world’s oldest open-air cinema (Sun Pictures, owned by Lord McAlpine) takes you right to the heart of the main cafe strip. It’s not a stretch to then tootle a few kilometres down the road via Town Beach to Gantheaume Point, past the thirsty golf course, the rifle range and cattle markets, then throw in a detour to Entrance Point and Broome’s working port. You’ll get a chance to take your scooter down everything from tidy streets to corrugated red-dirt roads. Depending on the fine print and how much you value your deposit, you can even venture onto small sections of beach where 4WDs are permitted.

At their busiest, Broome’s beaches sprout jeeps, joggers, deckchairs, tables, swimmers and camels. At other times you’ll have no difficulty finding yourself alone on anywhere from one to five kilometres of sand.

Pearl of the occident

As a pioneering boomtown, Broome was built on the backs of – or at least inside the secreting irritated shells of – bivalve molluscs. So, since you’ve come all this way, it’s a good idea to at least take a spin by the glamorous shopfronts of pearling giants Paspaley, Linneys and Kailis. And if you’re the sort who can afford to drop thousands of dollars on jewellery in the middle of a holiday, you might even head inside. They’re mostly huddled together on Dampier Terrace (except for Paspaley’s, which is right around the corner on Short St, near the wonderful Indigenous Short St Art Gallery with its brilliant white walls and rust red roof), just a few metres from the Pearl Luggers, another great little nugget of Broome’s pearling history with two examples of the beautifully restored and fully rigged vessels in its yard.

I’m in two minds about pearls. They can look great – but isn’t that more to do with the quality of the neck being adorned? You’re also supposed to rub them with olive oil every now and again, which seems a little high maintenance. Plus, any form of jewellery that can be damaged by perfume or hairspray should probably find another line of work. But judging by the prosperity of the shops along Dampier Terrace, and the fact that Paspaley has an entire plaza in Chinatown named after them, plenty of people disagree.

Broome’s Asian influences, ingrained during the 1800s pearling boom, remain strong. A great example, although not exactly on the tourist trail, is the Yuen Wing Store on Carnarvon St. You’ve never seen a store like this. After a toothbrush or groceries? They’ve got you covered. Need any camping gear? Over by the iPods. Run out of books or mixed lollies? You’ll find them behind the ride-on mowers.

Setting foot on the flats

Roebuck Bay– on the non-Cable Beachside of Broome, if you like – is famous for its rich, mangrove-fringed tidal mud flats and gentle, luminous, light blue watery expanse. Depending on what phase the monster tides are in, it can be terrific fun to tiptoe out past the stranded dinghies and observe the intricate lifecycles of the various crabs, shorebirds and other critters that call this place home. Walk fast and stop infrequently, or you’ll sink up to your shins.

The stretch of mudflats near Town Beach is a great spot to explore, because it’s hungry work and happens to be right around the corner from one of Broome’s best lunching spots: Matso’s Broome Brewery (www.matsos.com.au, 08 9193 5811).

Japanese-inspired Matso’s has lived multiple lives on several different streets in its chequered past. Originally Broome’s first bank, set among the opium dens of the red light district, it survived a fire, became a store, was relocated, changed names, was bought by Lord McAlpine (surprise surprise), was relocated once more for good measure and is now a wonderful restaurant/bar with accommodation and an art gallery.

Being a brewery, Matso’s specialises in interesting award-winning beers. I tried a $5 middie of Monsoon Blonde, a too-easy-to-drink ale with the hint of lime built in, and a passing tour group allowed me to sneak some of their Chocolate Beer. I couldn’t really taste the chocolate, but everyone else seemed to love it. I can also personally vouch for the Albany Black Mussels served in Chilli Beer, and the Ginger Beer fish ’n’ chips – WA threadfin salmon, locally caught.

Old digs, new digs

Being a bit of a tourist hub, there are naturally a lot of sleeping options in Broome, no matter what your budget. Some great low-cost choices include: The Kimberley Klub, which will confuse you if you frequent a lot of hostels since it’s basically the resort experience grafted onto a YHA setting (poolside bar, breezy balconies, great food, www.kimberleyklub.com, 08 9192 3233); and Cable Beach Backpackers – simple, clean and always jam-packed since it’s the closest backpackers to Cable Beach (www.cablebeachbackpackers.com, 08 9193 5511).

For a mid-range stay, good options are: The Pearle, a new Southeast Asian-inspired resort with surprisingly affordable hotel rooms and modern self-contained apartment-style villas and pavilions (www.thepearle.com.au, 08 9194 0900); and Bali Hai Resort, which
is exactly how you imagine it to be: lots of frangipanis, Asian-style buildings, polished wooden floors and big, deep bathtubs (www.balihairesort.com, 08 9191 3100).

If money is no object, then McAlpine House deserves a mention here, not just for its historical significance as the original 1910 home of pearling legend Herbert Kennedy, but also since it was Lord McAlpine’s home for ten years from 1982, and was also modern-day pearling doyen Marilynne Paspaley’s home until she converted it to boutique lodgings. You’ll be paying a lot for the privilege, but this is a one-of-a-kind property (www.mcalpinehouse.com, 08 9192 3886). And of course there’s the Cable Beach Club Resort, an institution in Broome – and as integral a part of the landscape as the plodding camels and vast beaches (www.cablebeachclub.com, 08 9192 0400).

While you’re there

Like Everest’s base camp, Broome is a place from which exciting and sometimes dangerous adventures begin. Here are just a few ideas to get you started: By land From Broome, you’re perfectly placed to take a variety of great 4WD tours, including to any of the gorge-intensive areas northeast of Derby (Bell, Geikie and Windjana to name a few) and along the famous Gibb River Road. Then there are 1-3 day tours to Cape Leveque, Tunnel Creek or a myriad others. If, like me, you want a scooter, then one great underrated outfit that always has loads available is M2000 Car Rental onBlackman St, (08) 9192 2383.

By air: Aerial tours range from hour-long scenic flights to half-day trips over the Buccaneer Archipelago to more adventurous 1-3 day tours to the Bungle Bungle Ranges and beyond. Try Horizontal Waterfalls Adventure Tours (08 9192 2885, www.horizontalfalls.com.au) and King Leopold Air (08 9193 7155, www.kingleopoldair.com.au).

By water: The more interesting varieties include aboard beautifully restored pearl luggers such as The Willie Lugger (0428 919 781, www.williecruises.com.au), which offer sunset sailing – which is the perfect time to take blood-red photos of all the people on shore who are taking photos of you out at sea.

Sort of by land, sort of by air, sort of by water: Spirit of Broome Hovercraft tours (08 9193 5025, www.broomehovercraft.com.au) are a unique way of seeing most of the close-to-shore highlights of Broome, including zooming around at low tide on the mudflats where, if you’re lucky, you’ll spot the semi-submerged wrecks of military flying boats shot down during WWII.

Other good stuff: The Broome Bird Observatory about 25km east of town on Roebuck Bay is well worth a look (www.broomebirdobservatory.com, 08 9193 5600), as are Malcolm Douglas’ Crocodile Park and Wilderness Park (www.malcolmdouglas.com.au, 08 9192 1489). Broome is also a high-traffic area for fanatical anglers, with fishing tours available up and down the coast.

The award-winning Willie Creek Pearl Farm Tour is just what it sounds like: a tour of a working pearl farm that has won loads of awards. As a hands-on glimpse into the industry that basically built Broome, it is without peer (www.williecreekpearls.com.au). And don’t miss the brilliant Courthouse Markets, held Saturdays and Sundays on the sprawling grounds of the impressive historic courthouse on the corner of Hammersley and Fredrick Streets.

My remaining tip for travellers to Broome is for the golfers, so if that’s not you, stop reading now. Here it is: directly below the pro shop car park, with its superb view out overRoebuckBay, there’s a steep and deep bit of bush. If you’re comfortable with snakes, head in there and you’ll come out with at least a dozen lost golf balls, alleviating the need to bring (or buy) any of your own.

Also, you might want to stich two wide-brim hats together and use the result as one giant sunshade. It’s brutal out there.

 

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