40. Australian Road Trip: Swept Away by Broome, the Pearl of Western Australia
Slipping into “Broometime” is as easy as dozing off in a deckchair in the sun after downing a six pack of Emu Bitter - it’s that sort of place. It is also a mass of contradictions. Blazing hot, yet tempered by soothing Indian Ocean breezes; isolated from the rest of the world by vast distances, yet as close to the contemporary Australian zeitgeist as you can get outside of Sydney or Melbourne. It’s fast paced but leisurely; lazy but busy. It is all these contradictions and more. Broome is The Place To Be in the farthest corner of Australia. When you finally get here, whichever way you come, it quickly worms its way into your body and soul. It is intoxicating and enervating at the same time. It energises and tires, it burns and it soothes. It is incongruous in its location - ocean on three sides, desert wilderness on the fourth - yet it sits comfortably in its rugged isolation - just as you would expect from such a self-confident, self-sufficient place. Getting here is half the challenge and when you finally make it you deserve everything it has to offer - and it hands it over easily. You don’t have to fight to find it, “Broometime” is your reward.
Town of Tin
Broome is built of what we call Tin in Australia, that is - corrugated iron. And it’s not just tin roofs either, but walls as well. Houses, shopping arcades, hotels, apartments, even the cinema, are constructed of the ubiquitous Aussie building material. The newer houses are clad in a modern variation of corrugated iron (called colorbond) which comes in a range of colours and is, most importantly, rustproof. That is the first thing we notice, the creamy coloured, tin buildings that give the town its pearly opalescence. The second thing we remark on is that since we left Fitzroy Crossing this morning (450kms ago) we have only seen four other vehicles – now I know why: every car in the Kimberley is here in Broome. I exaggerate, but the grid of roads in the town centre is certainly busy. Our first few minutes in Broome are spent driving about until we find a view of the Indian Ocean to confirm that have made it at last to the west coast of Australia.
Our first sighting of the Indian Ocean
Pearl of the Indian Ocean
There is a Chinatown in Broome - a boulevard with attractive shops and colourful signage -reflecting the melting pot of cultures and peoples that historically make up the population. The original, indigenous inhabitants are here too – mostly lounging about in large groups under the shade of boabs and palms in the Town Park.
We spend our first two nights at the Roebuck Bay Caravan Park, on the shores of the Town Beach. The sand is orange and the sea is a milky turquoise. As the sun sets behind the town and the view from our camp glows red, yachts at sea are set-off against the purple clouds of a distant, far away rainstorm. During the day we explore the town which feels so different to just about any other in Australia. There are many reminders here of what it must once of been like, when it supplied pearls, and mother-of-pearl, to the world. Nowadays the world comes to Broome. There are pearl shops galore and basically, the town is themed around their existence. People come here by plane for luxury tropical holidays and there is a substantial service culture catering to that type of visitor. Many other people arrive by vehicle, from the south or from the east. Whichever direction one drives in from, Broome is like an oasis in a very real desert. For us, the commercialism and overt trendiness of it all, is not a worry after the wild places we have been through over the last month.
In the town centre, as well as pearl shops, there are tourist/souvenir shops, gourmet restaurants, trendy bars, cafés, art galleries and one of the most unusual movie houses in the world – The Sun Cinema - an old tin shed that has open-air stalls with deck chairs for seating. You can spend hours wandering about Broome but ducking into air-conditioned shops, or shady arcades is a necessary way of relieving oneself of the intense heat and blinding glare of the sun reflecting off the opalescent buildings.
Mother of pearl gift ideas
Pearls - probably not from Broome, but you can pretend
Fancy a Pearl Knecklace?
After two days, we decide to move across the peninsular to stay at fabled Cable Beach. We set up in the nicest campground this side of the Great Divide. It’s a huge place with lots of “streets” set out in an irregular pattern under a canopy of shady gums and palms. There is a huge swimming pool too, the largest, coolest looking pool I’ve ever swam in, and the other campers we meet are definitely the most chilled-out bunch we’ve yet encountered. Everyone is pleased to be in Broome. It is the “Broometime” effect and the official tourist season hasn’t even begun yet. The campground is a ten minute walk from the Beach which is overlooked by the Sunset Bar from where we witness the glory of the sinking orb. It must be one of the most photographed sunset spots in the world. We quickly settle in to our new life at Cable Beach. On our second evening there, I cycle up to the beach with my surfboard under my arm, and as the sky changes from bright blue through orange to flaming red, I surf the small but fun waves in the tepid bath waters of the Indian ocean. On the pearly white sand a surreal caravan of camels bearing holiday makers slinks passed while yachts in full sail drift along the horizon in the stillness of the evening. This state-of-mind is Broometime – and I’m loving it.
Unfortunately, good times don’t last. Especially when you are the owner of a worn-out old Toyota flat-bed truck with a Winnebago on the back. The bastard won’t start again. Not that we want to go anywhere in particular, (the beach and the bar is a 10 minute walk, and there’s a good little shop and bottlo just a short cycle ride up the road) ...but we have to start the van sometime. One of our friendly camp neighbours uses a testing device on the alternator that tells us that the said alternator is not longer ‘alternating’.
I’m becoming accustomed to auto electric problem solving so here’s what we do in 10 easy steps:
1.Look in the Broome Yellow Pages to find auto-electrician.
2. Jump-start with cables by said neighbour.
3. Drive out to mechanic’s. He is busy but says if I take the alternator out he will fix it and I can reinstall it. Save time and money.
4. I borrow tools, spend next hour or so loosening nuts on hard-to-get-at alternator.
5. Wait around while the mechanic rebuilds and tests it.
6. Then I Spend two sweaty hours reinstalling alternator back in hard-to-get-at location.
7. Pay mechanic $70 and drive back to camp.
8. Have long cool swim in Pool, slip quickly back into Broometime
9. Get nicely slaughtered on cold beer.
10. Glow in the knowledge that this trial and tribulation has made me a better person - I sweated buckets, got covered in oil and grease and skinned my knuckles three times, but we have fixed the starting problem once and for all, and I have helped do it.
Our immediate camp neighbours are a friendly mob. There is Dean, a school teacher, and his wife and kids. They have driven up here from Melbourne via Alice Springs and Katherine. They have a Ford station wagon and an old tent trailer. They’re planning to head slowly down the west coast before crossing the Nullabor back to Melbourne - a three month family road trip. Camped behind us are Les and Barbara and their four friends who we don’t get to know quite as well. Les and Barbara are Grey Nomads in their late 50s all the way from Bundaberg in Queensland. They are travelling in convoy – three Toyota Hiluxes, each towing a state-of the-art off-road tent trailer. They have driven across Queensland to Mt Isa, then to Tenant Creek, then south to Alice Springs and have just crossed the Tanami Desert Track, past Wolfe Creek Crater to Halls Creek, thence all stations to Broome. They are now waiting for the Gibb River Road to open after the wet. Then they will drive from Derby to Kununarra, across the final frontier so to speak, before returning to Queensland via the Savannah Way. What a trip! As you might expect It is mostly Aussies you meet on the road - we love our Road Trips.
Getting the hump
Broome Bus Service is efficient and cheap and we use it to bus into town to visit the Saturday Arts and Craft Market. It’s not bad as far as markets go with some really unique Broomey products such as arty, paper lamps decorated with beautiful drawings of Boab trees and dragon flies, or a line of clothing, coloured by dye made from the deep red "Pindan" dirt that underlies this part of the West. On another day we catch a bus out to Gauntheame Point where there is a lighthouse and dinosaur footprints on the strangely eroded rocks. From the Point we walk back to camp along Cable Beach, a distance of about 5kms. The seashore is a patriotic blend of striking colour: the red earth, the white sand and the very blue ocean. The reality of the tropics kicks in when we arrive back at the Sunset Bar area of the beach. The water has been closed - that is, No Swimming” signs are out – there have been stingers found by the lifeguard during his hourly stinger-trawl along this part of the beach, they are Irikandji too, little tiny stingers that can paralyse and kill you.
But don't worry about the stingers, this is Broome. If you can’t swim in the sea, you can always ride a camel along the beach. This we do with Les and Barbara and their posse. We are picked up from the corner by a minibus and taken a couple of miles out into the bush to a camel ranch where we are mounted on our dromodaries and led in a line down a shady trail through the scrub that leads onto the northern half of Cable Beach. The Camel Master is a white Aussie dude who goes by the name of Abdul. He is inscrutable and doesn’t say a word the whole time, but his second-in-command does, including a story about how Abdul went out into the desert and captured his own wild camels, bred them and started the Broome Camel Rides Company many years earlier. True story? Could be, anything is possible in the Outback. The camel ride is great fun, very touristy maybe, but a must do. Along the way our caravan of souls pass several groups of naked blokes who are hanging about drinking beer beside their 4x4s which are parked on the sand. We also pass a live action, sunset wedding being held at the water’s edge. A lot of people come to Broome to get married at sunset on Cable Beach... it's that sort of place. As we pass the ceremony I swear I see the setting sun glint romantically off the bride’s ring.
Western Australia - Further reading
Books about pearling
Great modern Australian Novel by Tim Winton, partly set in Broome and Kimberley
Good night Broome, we love you.
The Spinifex Effect
We spend about 10 days in Broome. On the last day I decide to buy a fishing line and some tackle. Fishing is almost compulsory out here, though I haven’t baited a hook for decades. We stop at the IGA for groceries and fill-up the petrol and water tanks before saying farewell to the busy, shiny streets of Broome with its tin houses and Chinese writing. We head off toward the Roebuck Plains Roadhouse where we take the first and only right hand turn, south to Perth via Port Hedland, 2250kms away. From the roadhouse the highway slopes down onto the Roebuck Plains, a totally featureless landscape. The Rough Guide says “The 600 kilometre run from Broome to Port Hedland is one of first class boredom, a dreary plain of spinifex and mulga marking the edge of the Great Sandy Desert.” That says it all, except I will disagree with the boredom bit.
More by this Author
Leaving Port Hedland in their newly repaired camper van, Mick & Sheila wend their way cautiously down the west coast of Australia, surrounded by desert wilderness and the fear of breaking down again.
Despite first impressions, we grow to love Port Hedland, discovering the wonderful humanity of its people as well as meeting all kinds of fellow travellers. It is the defining moment of our journey.
One effect of Cyclone Larry (March 2006) was increased rainfall, the consequence being that we were trapped in the outback town of Katherine for over a week while the town flooded. Disaster Tourism.