Current Issue #488

Swept away in Broome

Swept away in Broome

In Australia’s North West, The Adelaide Review explores an outback town with striking scenery, rich history and vibrant multiculturalism.

Traffic lights. Post boxes. Roof gutters. I quickly discover these things have no place in Broome. The lovely local who apprises me of these missing signifiers of urbanity assures me it’s entirely appropriate: where traffic lights might be, myriad roundabouts regulate the flow of 4WDs that cruise the roads. Instead of postal delivery, locals meet and greet one another at the post office when they need to collect snail mail. And the missing roof gutters? Apparently when rain comes, the water falls with such speed and force that gutters become not just redundant, but a hindrance.

As it turns out, water is integral to Broome, and not just when it rains down in biblical proportions during the wet season. The town is on a short peninsula that’s bounded to the east and south by the tropical turquoise stretch of Roebuck Bay, and to the west by a vibrant azure expanse of the Indian Ocean. Both are significantly affected by tides, and it’s in these extreme tidal waters that Broome’s fame and fortune was found.

For thousands of years, the Pinctada maxima – an oyster with a shell as big as your head thrived here, and was a vital trade and food source for the local Yawuru people. In the 1880s, the regional abundance of these bivalves captured the attention of colonists not for the gems themselves, but for the shell. Before plastics, mother of pearl was the prime material for buttons. What could rightly be called a ‘pearl rush’ ensued; thousands flocked from China, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines and other regions, all seeking prosperity. To say that Broome was built on buttons is not an understatement.

The result was a place of remarkable multiculturalism, way ahead of its time a fusion of Australian, British, Asian and Indigenous sensibilities that’s still evident today. The red-dirt lined streets and corrugated iron buildings with deep shaded verandas have an undeniably outback feel, but I also see Chinese-inspired architecture, and laneways decked with red lanterns.

I’m in town for the annual food and cultural festival, Shinju Matsuri translated as ‘Festival of The Pearl’. It was created 48 years ago as a combination of three separate cultural events: the Japanese Obon Matsuri, Malaysian Hari Merdeka and Chinese Hang Seng. But festival aside, when I hit the restaurants, bars and markets, the culinary influences strongly reflect the town’s heritage: there’s the local favourite, The Aarli, a pan-Asian wine bar; Matso’s Brewery, which serves up ginger and chilli beers; the famous Courthouse Markets, which boast authentic Indonesian, Filipino, Thai and Malay food trucks; and Broome’s best fine-diner, Zensai, renowned for its Japanese omakase menu.

The pearling industry remains strong today and there’s an entire street in Chinatown lined with pearl boutiques. Broome has other treasures, too: dinosaur prints dating back some 130 million years. The most obvious examples are at Gantheaume Point though without knowing what you’re looking at it, it can be hard to identify them. That’s where the help of Bart Pigram, a Yawuru man, comes in handy. He often points out these remarkable fossils, littered along the coastline, on his cultural tours. Pigram is passionate about showing off the footprints, not just because of the cultural and geological significance, but also because driving on Cable Beach is a popular pursuit: many people don’t realise they are eroding Cretaceous history by doing so. “It’s lucky that we have big tides that are shifting and moving the sands, both protecting and exposing the dinosaur footprints every day,” he says.

The big tides are also what make Roebuck Bay, on the eastern side of town, so dynamic. Its lush mangroves take part in an ever-changing display, alternating between exposing their roots and the surrounding sticky mud, and being enveloped and inundated with vibrant blue-green water.

Plus, the waning Roebuck Bay tides are the source of one of Broome’s biggest attractions: Staircase to the Moon. A few times a month in the dry season, when a full moon rises over the Bay, the mudflats transform into shimmering strips of water that appear like moonlit stairs. You can watch it from the shoreline at Town Beach but I opt instead for the grassy lawn outside the Mangrove Hotel, where one can witness the spectacle with a glass of white wine in hand. It seems to me to most civilised way to experience such a tidal phenomenon.

A sunset camel ride on Cable Beach is what every tourist does and should do. We all get a selfie with an ungulate before climbing aboard their humps for a long, slow stroll. It’s simple nose-to-tail ambling, and yet with the long shadows of the camels’ legs crisscrossing on the wet sand and the fading sunlight casting a burnished sheen across the ocean, it feels like yet another Broome experience that’s defined by interaction with water. And the water isn’t quite done with me yet. As my plane takes off the next morning, banking over the Indian Ocean, a whale below us raises a fin into the air and slaps it down on the surface of the aquamarine ocean. It feels almost mythical in significance. A fitting farewell salute.

The writer was a guest of WA Tourism.

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