Broome with a view
On the remote fringes of western Australia, Christopher Somerville lost himself in a land of blissful beaches, perfect sunsets and the quirkiest picture house down under
The setting sun struck a fiery crimson out of the cliffs and spread a peachy glow across the empty sands of Reddells Beach. We ran into the warm sea — myself and Jane, our son George and daughter-in-law Katy — prisoners released from the 38°C heat of the day.
Charlie, the tan and black mutt, swam out with us, paws threshing like riverboat paddles. Matilda, aged three and not to be outdone, leaped over the little waves and got a salty faceful that made her gasp and giggle. George picked her up and swung her round, scattering drops that glittered like shards of rainbow across the sunset.
Deep-blue sky, jade sea, red earth, green bush, creamy sand — the very essence of Broome.
If you’re an arty cosmopolite looking for a sophisticated scene, don’t bother with this tropical peninsula on the edge of Western Australia.
But if you’re after fabulous, uncrowded beaches, a laid-back lifestyle, a scatter of beautiful small resorts and lots to do outdoors, this former pearling port, out in the middle of nowhere in the vast north-west region, is absolutely the cat’s pyjamas.
When George and Katy moved there last year from bustling, brash Cairns on the Queensland coast, Jane and I wondered whether they’d really enjoy the slow pace and the remote situation of Broome. But they truly love it, and so does little Matilda.
Seasons are all-important here. Around December it starts to rain, the temperature and humidity shoot skywards and things get generally hot, wet, sticky and windy. By March they are simmering down; by May the climate is balmy, the day temperatures down, the sea clear of stingers (the bane of tropical Australia) and the holiday season getting under way. The following few months are the time to visit Broome.
We went in September, and it was just about perfect.
If you want to do anything energetic and outdoorsy in these parts, it’s best to do it while the sun’s still low in the sky. Our early-morning visit to the Broome Historical Society museum (0061 891 922 075; broomemuseum.org.au), packed with artefacts such as a well-stuffed portmanteau, yielded a fascinating snapshot of the past.
Only 100 years ago, Broome was a two-fisted, frontier-style town of jerry-built shops, gimcrack boarding houses and boozers. Established by white ‘pearling masters,’ it was populated by Malays, Chinese, Aboriginals and Japanese who fished and processed the pearls and raised various shades of Cain when onshore.
We picked up the Town Trail leaflet and set off at dawn to explore the old wooden pearling wharf of Streeter’s Jetty, the magnificent Court House built in 1889 of Singapore teakwood and curlicue ironwork, and the simple corrugated tin Anglican church that served as the cathedral of the entire diocese of North West Australia.
Chinatown was built of corrugated tin, too, the beating heart of old Broome when the Chinese ran the town’s commerce and the Japanese controlled its pearl diving. Not all was sunshine and roses in the tough old port.
The town lock-up, these days a museum and gallery, was a sweltering punishment box, and, out on the edge of town, a wide area of cemeteries told us of the sudden and premature ends to which Chinese, Japanese and Malayan pearling employees too often came — 50pc of the divers, it’s now believed, died from the bends and other ‘industrial diseases’.
The town beach boasts a playpark for kiddies and a poignant little cemetery full of white pioneers, but its inland-facing situation means the water can be murky from the nearby mangrove swamps. It’s the two other strands that you should head for — Cable Beach and Reddells Beach. Cable is the classic white-sand strip, facing due west into the wide Indian Ocean. It runs south to the red cliffs of Gantheaume (pronounced ‘Gantium’) Point, and north as far as the eye can see.
There are loungers and sunshades for hire here, and a slew of well-kept resort cafés and restaurants at hand.
Reddells Beach is a different kettle of fish, a curve of pinkish sand and striking red cliffs facing south west at the end of a dirt road beyond Gantheaume Point. There are no facilities here, just rocks, sea and empty sand, which are all you need — especially in the early morning or, even better, at sunset or ‘beer o’clock’, as the locals term it, with a nice cold tinnie in your hand.
The Aboriginal culture of Broome is poorly represented to outsiders, as elsewhere in Australia. But there are clues to it in Minyirr Park, a strip of bush just south of Cable Beach that has been left undisturbed. Here, the indigenous people have established a waymarked walking trail with brightly painted shelters and barbecue tables.
The trail winds among wattle and gum trees, full of birds with the harsh piping and screeching calls that are so characteristic of the Australian bush, and on out over the dunes where strings of bright convolvulus-like flowers carpet the sand.
Behind Cable Beach the Minyirr Trail joins the long-distance Lurujarri Trail running north up the west coast of the Dampier Peninsula.
Gantheaume Point is magical at dawn, thanks partly to the presence of a family of ospreys. Don’t forget your binoculars. The big sea eagles nest, preen and feed on a platform of the skeleton lighthouse tower at the Point, bringing fish back in their claws and generally going about their business without giving the humans below a second glance.
Rock pooling on the wide tidal ledges below the tower is superb, and whales are sometimes spotted offshore. If you explore the ledges due west of the lighthouse at a very low tide, you can find a short line of 130-million-year-old dinosaur footprints deeply indented in the rock, three-toed, like a giant chicken.
Evenings are for heading to a west-facing point — Cable Beach and its cafés are very popular — to catch the spectacular glories of an Indian Ocean sunset while sipping something long and cool. Then on to the beach in the warm dusk for a barbecue, perhaps, or into town to hit the bars and eateries.
Our favourite was Matso’s Brewery, a large, airy room with wooden floor, corrugated tin walls and enough long communal tables to feast a cohort of hungry harvesters. Curry Night at Matso’s is great — the place has its own brewery, so you can wash down your jalfrezi with a jar or two of mango beer, Monsoonal Blonde or dark and potent Smoky Bishop.
Broome is a town of many charms, but don’t forget the surrounding coast and countryside. The East Kimberley region of Western Australia is peppered with fabulous destinations, so do take a few days to venture away from the city and do some exploring.
The Dampier Peninsula stretches north of Broome for 150 miles, a beautiful remote tongue of land with bright-red earth, dirt roads and lots of virgin bush. A huge population of humpback whales passes offshore during their annual migration.
Red dirt roads (4WD advised) take you to wonderful secluded campsites such as Middle Lagoon, where you sleep in simple cabins and explore pristine beaches.
A must-see star attraction is the mission-built Church of the Sacred Heart at Beagle Bay, a large, dazzling white church with a most beautiful and spectacular interior embellished with pearl shell. Screens are inlaid with the symbols of the sacraments, there’s shell round the window frames and the Stations of the Cross, and a wonderful altarpiece of pearl-shell mosaic.
Back in town, two night-time treats not to miss are the Staircase to the Moon and the Sun Picture House. On certain nights of favourable conditions, well posted in the ubiquitous ‘Broome Advertiser’ (required reading when in town), the rising moon reflects off the east-facing mud flats of Roebuck Bay to form a silvery stairway into the sky.
The terrace of the Mangrove Hotel (0061 891 921 303; mangrove hotel.com.au) is a great place to view the phenomenon, as is Town Beach. As for the Sun Picture House (0061 891 921 077; broomemovies. com.au), this is a Broome institution — the world’s oldest-operating outdoor cinema, housed in a venerable tin building in Chinatown that’s festooned with old film posters, from James Dean to Johnny Depp.
Jane and I went there to see ‘Bran Nue Dae’, a funny, touching musical about an Aboriginal boy from Broome who runs away from his seminary in Perth to find true love with a hometown girl.
Having been filmed mostly in Broome, it’s on heavy rotation at the Sun House.
We lounged in canvas steamer chairs under a starry sky, drinking pop and watching the film while planes growled overhead into Broome airport, obscuring the soundtrack from time to time.
Bats flittered through the projector beam, and rich smells of frangipani blossom filled the cinema. It was heavenly.
We didn't score a fortune with Charlie Sheen in a Broome casino. We didn't meet Paris Hilton by the pool, or hire a Roller to get us from the Champagne club to the nail salon.
But we had the time of our lives, and then some, in this far-out and faraway hideout in the back of the Australian beyond.
Need to know
We flew with Qantas (qantas.com). Fares cost from ¤906 from Dublin to Broome via Frankfurt.
Seashells Resort (0061 891 926 111; seashells.com.au), a short walk from Cable Beach and Broome, has lush gardens and a pool. Rates from €200 per double room per night in April. Backpackers should try Roebuck Bay (0061 891 921 221; roey.com.au), or Kimberley Klub (0061 891 923 233; kimberleyklub.com).
Broome Visitor Centre, PO Box 352, Broome WA 6725. Tel: 0061 891 952 200; broomevisitorcentre. com.au. See australia.com.
FIVE GREAT THINGS TO DO
Watch the sunset from Cable Beach or Reddells Beach. Walk the Minyirr and Lurujarri Trails. Explore the Saturday Markets at the Court House. Visit Willie Creek Pearl Farm on a jade-green tidal creek north of Broome, the only Kimberley pearl farm open to the public where you’re shown how oysters make pearls. Take a star-gazing trip with Astro Tours (astrotours.net) under some of the world’s clearest skies.