Broome - the Pearl of WA
Words and photography by Steve Collins
Broome is the gateway to the Kimberley region
The biggest town in the Kimberley region of northwest Australia, Broome, is an iconic place with an interesting history. However, it’s also a town that has adapted well to change.
Located 2,200kms north of Perth, Broome sits on the western shore of Roebuck Bay and was established as a port, for both the pearling and cattle industries. Pearls are still important to the local economy and amidst the shops in the old town centre, there are many businesses selling pearls, both in their natural state and included in jewellery settings.
These days, most of the businesses trade in cultured pearls but the first pearlers were after pearl shell which was used for buttons, decorations and the like. It was the discovery on Pinctada Maxima, the world’s largest pearl oyster, which saw Broome thrive and today, it’s still the world’s biggest supplier of cultured pearls.
Willie Creek Pearl Farm lecturer talks about pearls
While you can purchase pearls and exquisite jewellery in the historic town centre, one of the best tours you can do is to visit the Willie Creek Pearl Farm, just north of the town. Here you do a short boat tour of the pearl racks, waving to the resident crocodile as you pass them. Then, you learn about how cultured pearls are grown, before being let loose in the shop. Gentlemen do not take your wallets with you!
On Broome’s doorstep is Cable Beach; which is rightly regarded as one of Australia’s best beaches. Broome really is a place where the outback meets the sea. Although the town itself is quite tropical, there is no need to venture far out of town to experience a true outback Kimberley landscape. That rich, red dirt spreads right up to meet the chalk-white sand of Cable Beach and the vivid red rocks of Gantheaume Point, where you will see dinosaur tracks and enjoy some stunning sunsets.
Wave to the crocodiles on a boat tour of the pearl racks
Broome has the second highest tides in Australia, after its neighbour to the north, Derby, and the third highest tides in the world. With these tides reaching 10 metres or more, there are many mudflats surrounding Broome. You need to be careful where you lay your towel on Cable Beach, as the tide does flow and recede very quickly and if you lie too close to the water, you will find you’ll have to move several times as the tide comes in.
Cable Beach is so named because of the undersea telegraph cable (which connected Australia to Europe via Singapore) was laid there. Nowadays, the beach is most famous for the sunset camel rides which are popular with visitors. However, if you turn right at the main swimming beach and pass the slightly rocky headland (four-wheel drive vehicles are permitted) you have about twenty kilometres of gorgeous beach in which to sunbathe unclothed, a popular pastime there.
Camel riding on Cable beach at sunset
One of the really charming aspects of the town is how the old town buildings have been preserved. Broome is renowned for its multicultural mix. Developed to harvest pearls, the first divers were mainly Japanese and many of them married aboriginal women and raised families. Because of the climate, dry and comfortable for part of the year, then wet and very humid for the rest of the year, the typically Broome architectural style of corrugated iron walls and shutters to allow the breezes in, has been replicated in a truly contemporary way in modern buildings, including new houses.
There are many historic buildings in the town, including the old courthouse and the Sun Picture Theatre, which is the oldest, continuously running outdoor cinema in the world. Watching a film under the stars at the Sun Picture Theatre is a real treat and somewhat surreal.
The Sun Picture Theatre is the oldest outdoor cinema in the world
Tourism in Broome is seasonal as it has a tropical climate. The peak season is the dry season from April to October, when days are warm, dry and there is little humidity. The wet season is called the green season (for marketing reasons) when it gets regular downpours and high humidity and also, the occasional cyclone.
There are many good restaurants and pubs in town, with the best known being the Roey, the Roebuck Bay Hotel, in the heart of the heritage section of town. It’s a typical outback pub with a fabulous beer garden. One of my favourite places is Matso’s Broome Brewery, Australia’s most remote brewery, where you’ll not only get a great meal, you can also enjoy their range of beers and the superb alcoholic ginger beer. You’ll find this is an ideal tonic for the tropical heat.
The vivid red rocks of Gantheaume Point
Broome is also the western starting point for a tour of the Kimberley. Doing the Gibb River Road to Kununurra is still one of Australia’s great adventures. The road is only open in the dry season because it is covered in water during the wet. It presents the opportunity to visit stunning, far flung gorges where waterfalls create ice cold swimming holes, as a reward for the endeavours of getting there.
The town has many good resorts, some of which are exceptional, plus plenty of budget accommodation ranging from caravan parks to backpackers’ hostels. Most visitors arrive by plane, as it is a long drive from anywhere. The town’s normal population of about 15,000 swells to about 45,000 in peak season, with lots of people flocking to Broome to escape the southern winter.
Steve Collins is a professional travel writer and regular guest on The Couch, Foxtel Australia, Radio 6PR Perth and Have-A-Go News, Western Australia. Website: www.stevecollinstravelcorrespondent.com