On the edge of Australia lies a vivid landscape of blues, whites and dusty reds, as colourful as the town’s history. Daniel Scott gets to know Broome.
Approaching from the air, the dramatic isolation and natural blessings that make Broome so desirable are vividly laid out in a colour-saturated panorama. This is an isolated town, located at the edge of the Great Sandy Desert; vast tracts of virtually-uninhabited coastline fan out on either side, while the north-south peninsula it occupies juts into the gleaming Indian Ocean like a double-hooked fishing pole.
Many alluring images of Broome are now so entrenched they have become clichés: trains of camels wobbling along Cable Beach as the sun sets behind them into the Indian Ocean; turquoise seas and pearl-white beaches set against red pindan cliffs; the scent of frangipani wafting on the tropical breeze; the town as the gateway to The Kimberley, one of earth’s last untamed frontiers. The outpost even sashays along to its own ‘Broome time’, sensual and slow-moving, as befits its year-round warmth.
“We live in a little slice of paradise,” admits long-term Broome resident Sue Thom. Ron Sedon, general manager of Broome’s most iconic resort, Cable Beach Club agrees. “It’s simply the most exotic and romantic town in Australia. Nearly all our first-time guests have always wanted to come here.”
On its eastern coast, old Broome huddles behind a swirl of silvery-green mangroves and languid creeks on the ruddy shores of Roebuck Bay. To its west, the weathered rock-columns of Gantheaume Point look back on Cable Beach, 22 kilometres of the Southern Hemisphere’s finest white sand, against which the torpid sea can barely raise a ripple, let alone a wave.
The miracle of pearls
There is, though, a certain amount of truth in the clichés. None rings more accurately than Broome’s totemic association with the Pinctada Maxima, the world’s largest pearl oyster. Without its discovery, here at Roebuck Bay in 1861, Broome would not exist.
“Pearls are the miracle of Broome,” asserts Kim Male, a local councillor for 30 years who still wears the all-white apparel of a pearling master. His grandfather was among the earliest involved in pearling and his family’s fortunes have been intertwined with Broome’s for more than 100 years.
Initially it was global demand for pearl shell, to use for buttons amongst other items, which drove Europeans, Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, Malays and Indonesians to this northerly corner of Western Australia. Although the rewards were great – pearl shell attracted up to £400 a tonne in the 1880s – conditions were harsh, particularly for local Aborigines. Many were forced to free dive for shell, drowning in dangerous currents or succumbing to shark attack.
By the early 1900s, however, Broome had become the world’s premier pearling port and Australia’s first multicultural town, with a rumbustious, typically insalubrious Chinatown including brothels and drinking dens at its core. Asian pearlers had also started families with Aboriginal women, something that continues to resonate in the racial mix and fine features of Broomites today.
Unlike most white children, Kim Male grew up after World War II in Chinatown, developing a taste for Malaysian curries and taking part in celebrations like the Full Moon Festival and Hang Seng, in which the Chinese commemorated their ancestors. In 1970, he helped inaugurate Broome’s Shinju Matsuri (pearl) festival, which has its roots in those festivities and takes place around August/September each year.
“It was a small friendly town back then,” Male says, “the town had a meatworks and a pearling fleet.”
In the late 1950s, Broome’s pearl shell industry lost its way when plastics swept the world. But by then, a cultured pearl industry had developed, in partnership with the Japanese experts who’d brought the technology needed to propagate oysters. Producing the world’s finest pearls, the industry drove Broome’s economy well into the 1990s.
White pearls, white Australia
While pearling brought untold riches to some, it hardly improved for Broome’s Indigenous population, who continued to endure segregation.
“Broome was tough when I was a kid,” says the town’s head lawman Neil McKenzie, of the Yawuru people, who was born in 1964. “We weren’t allowed to do this and we weren’t allowed to do that,” he continues, “we weren’t well off, they used to make our clothes from sail cloth.”
It took decades for the situation to improve. “I saw the transition from the ‘70s to the ‘90s,” comments McKenzie, “we’ve had to learn white man’s way, put aside our differences and adapt to earn money.”
The advent of tourism
Until the 1980s, tourism was little more than an afterthought in Broome. It took an eccentric British Lord and political ally of Margaret Thatcher to change that.
“Alistair McAlpine was a mad collector of shells,” explains Kim Male, “he came here, fell in love with what he saw and bought the Sun Picture House.”
The cinema, which opened in 1916 and is reputedly the world’s oldest operating picture gardens, was just one of McAlpine’s Broome acquisitions. The big-spending baron splashed out $500 million developing the town, rarely letting convention get in his way. He created a zoo for endangered species and sealed the deal for the purchase of land – where Cable Beach Club resort was to be built – on a beer mat in the Roebuck Bay pub.
“Had one of WA’s show-offs, like Bond, got hold of the land,” says Kim Male, “it could have been an eyesore. He did it with a lot of style, distinguishing himself by seeking out Broome’s Asian colonial style. He hasn’t gone above two storeys and that set the standard.”
Cable Beach Club, which opened in 1988 and is arguably still Broome’s most prestigious address, a Raffles-like Australian hotel set among gardens planted with Mexican cycads, South African tulip trees and Kimberley boabs. Yet, due to the domestic pilots’ dispute and international economic crisis that soon followed, McAlpine never reaped the rewards of his investment. By the mid 1990s, his zoo was closed and Cable Beach sold.
McAlpine remains respected as a visionary by locals and was made a freeman of the shire in 2012.
“McAlpine was regarded as a saving grace by Aboriginals,” comments Neil McKenzie, “he always did the right thing by us.”
Characters of Broome
Still a raw frontier town to this day, Broome has long attracted people with big dreams.
“It was so exciting to come here when I was 20,” says Darren Banfield, of Willie Creek Pearl farms, “Broome provided lots of opportunity.”
Among those who flourished was Chris Wright, who arrived 31 years ago. “One job I did, under McAlpine’s instructions,” recalls Wright, “was transplanting 110 boab trees into Broome.”
Needing to uproot boabs from their natural locations outside town, Wright ran into trouble with environmental agencies, forcing him to work after dark. One night, as he trucked in a nine-tonne boab, he felled the main power line, knocking out Broome’s power for over a day.
“Somebody came up to me the next day,” chuckles Wright, “complaining about the blackout and saying that a huge boab had appeared overnight in the town centre. I can still remember desperately trying to keep a straight face as I replied with, ‘Oh, really?’”
“Broome is a boiling point for characters,” agrees Karl Plunkett, owner of Eco Beach Resort, 130-kilometres south-west of town.
Plunkett is one such character himself, some would say; doggedly pursuing the vision of a remote eco-sensitive resort, despite the first development being flattened in 2000 by Cyclone Rosita.
“The stuff that Karl Plunkett was thinking back then was way ahead of its time,” remembers Darren Banfield. “He was amazing. He came into town and he was like McAlpine – a crazy Englishman.”
The revamped Eco Beach recently opened an airstrip, putting it just a 20-minute scenic flight away from Broome. The resort, featuring eco villas powered by their own solar panels, a micro-organic wastewater system and organic vegetable gardens, has achieved Plunkett’s dream, being “way beyond carbon neutral”.
Nor does Eco Beach stint on luxuries, with an infinity pool overlooking the ocean, a new spa and a talented young chef, Bradley Smith, providing food of astounding quality and invention, given its remoteness. Indigenous tours among the coastal dune thickets, run by Neil McKenzie’s engaging 20-year-old son Domanic Matsumoto, add another layer to the resort.
Eco Beach is one forward-thinking element in Broome’s increasingly high profile as a tourist destination. Other ‘big ticket’ elements, including Kimberley coastal cruises aboard glamorous super-yachts like True North and thrilling day-tours to the one of the world’s most unique falls, Horizontal Falls, adding glitz to its appeal.
Nine thousand visitors took the Horizontal Falls tour last year, flying in and out by seaplane. The scenic flight, tracking over the coast of the Dampier Peninsula and skirting the thousand islands of the Buccaneer Archipelago is worth the tour price alone. But then guests get to snorkel, in a cage, with frisky tawny sharks and ride the rampant cascades tumbling sideways, due to huge tidal changes, on a super-fast inflatable boat.
“In spite of the dalliance we had with resources with the James Price Point gas project,” asserts Sedon, “tourism remains the lifeblood of the town.”
The project was recently shelved, but with The Kimberley covered in both on and offshore gas and oil fields, Broome will surely come under renewed pressure to join the resources boom in future.
A spiritual place
Still, many in Broome fearing the impact on the landscape are equally certain to resist it.
“It’s a really spiritual place,” argues Robyn Maher, a Broome resident of 21 years. “There is something magnetic about the red earth, the white sand, the turquoise water and the green mangroves and we don’t want to lose that connection with multinational companies moving in.”
Long before the arrival of Europeans, major song lines belonging to the Yawuru, Djugan and Goolarabooloo peoples originated here, underlining this coast’s cultural significance.
More recently, Broome’s Asian influence reached its spiritual apotheosis in a hand-carved 3.5 metre-high quartz-crystal Buddha. It’s found at Buddha Sanctuary near Cable Beach Club; a gift to the town from the resort’s Malaysian owners. Its floors are reputedly inlaid with crystals and morning yoga sessions here are infused with ancient mysticism.
Growing tourism, including bringing in visitors on direct international flights, may be Broome’s salvation. “We are looking at the big picture, working together for the next generation,” agrees Indigenous leader Neil McKenzie. “And tourism is the main future here.”
Qantas operates seasonal direct flights to Broome from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Qantas and Virgin have daily connecting flights via Perth.
Affordable: Beaches of Broome near Cable Beach, is the town’s newest budget option. Rooms from $140 per night. beachesofbroome.com.au
Comfortable: Boutique villa resort The Billi has luxury ‘Eco Tents’ with freestanding baths, a kitchenette and views over the resort pool. Villas and studio apartments are also available. From $120 per night. thebilli.com.au
The nearby Blue Seas Resort has self-contained apartments from $225 per night. blueseasresort.com.au
The Mantra Frangipani – the former Frangipani Resort – is opening 9 July and will offer 54 villas all with private courtyards. Prices will be available closer to opening date. mantra.com.au
Splashing Out: Notwithstanding the advent of players like Pinctada Resort and The Pearle, Cable Beach Club Resort, is still the Broome address with its luxury self-catering pavilions. Studios from $389 per night in high season. cablebeachclub.com
Eco Beach offers guilt-free relaxation in a remote beachfront location. Villas from $345 per night. ecobeach.com.au
The Sunset Bar at Cable Beach Club is the must-do on any self-respecting tourist’s list – the perfect spot for a cocktail as you watch the sun slowly set over Cable Beach. Cable Beach Road; 08 9192 0400; cablebeachclub.com
Matsos Brewery is the best spot to go if you’re hoping to feel like a local; they not only serve several varieties of truly excellent beer – including their own ginger beer – but offer the best pub grub we’ve eaten in a long time. 60 Hamersley Street; 08 9193 5811; matsosbroomebrewery.com.au
Thai Pearl, Cable Beach Club, open Thursday to Monday for dinner, offers authentic Thai in a lovely poolside setting. Cable Beach Road; 08 9192 0400; cablebeachclub.com
Azuki Japanese Fusion, open Monday to Friday lunch and dinner, offers fresh and delicious Japanese-accented fare. Plus, it’s BYO. Napier Terrace; 08 9183 7211
Café D’Amore does Broome’s best pizza in a much-loved (though somewhat hard-to-find) location, filled with palm trees and an eclectic little outdoor bar. Look for it down backstreet opposite a car park, hidden by palm trees. Jones Place; 08 9192 7606; cafedamore.com.au
Need to know
Broome’s tourist season – the dry season – runs from May to October. Marine stingers are prevalent November to May.
For more info visit australiasnorthwest.com.au