Pinned to the Dampier Peninsula at the top of Western Australia, there’s a swash-buckling spunk to Broome, a last frontier spirit that infectiously sweeps you up. No matter how you try and get here, it’s an epic trek – in my case, 16 hours from wheels-up in Christchurch till touchdown in Broome, via Brisbane and Perth.
And I was only visiting Australia! On final approach to the airport, an epic camel-coloured sunset streaked the horizon, as the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean washed the bone-white sands of glorious Cable Beach. What a welcome, what a spectacle. As I soon discovered, Broome binges on spectacles.
So many aspects to its bewitching terrain harbour astonishing natural novelties that left my jaw regularly on the floor. In a serious stroke of good luck, my visit coincided with a big full moon, which sets the stage for the monthly Broome spectacle called Staircase to the Moon. This mesmerising illusion is a stirring phenomenon which occurs when the full moon rises over Roebuck Bay’s exposed mudflats.
A clear night and a low tide allow the moon’s reflection to create an optical trick, rippling across the mud flats, like layers of light reaching up to the moon. It’s best viewed from the Town Beach or Mangrove Hotel, between March and October. The Dampier Peninsula has been dubbed Australia’s Jurassic Park due to the discovery of 21 different types of dinosaur tracks, over a 25km stretch of coastline.
The easiest ones to see are just south of Cable Beach, at Gantheaume Point. At low tide, marvel at massive dinosaur footprints pressed timelessly into the red rocky reef, from where they walked the earth over 130 million years ago. The footprints are embedded in the sandstone, below the cliff.
Some of the footprints are nearly two metres in length. Neighbouring the vast outback deserts, camels have been a regular part of the landscape in these parts for well over a century. At last count, Australia is still home to 500,000 wild camels, some of which are captured and sold to the Middle East, because these dromedary camels (one humped Arabians) are prized for their lack of disease.
I joined a camel train on Cable Beach for a morning ride in the fresh air with Red Sun Camels, on the back of a very well-behaved Ned. Basking in the coastal embrace of a warm sea breeze, it was an irresistible way to start the day. Among the sights, our guide pointed out the luxe beach mansion, owned by Channel Seven boss, Kerry Stokes. Many of their herd have been rescued from circuses or nursed back to good health after incurring injuries in the wild.
Loping along the soft white sands, with the breakers crashing on the rocks from the Indian Ocean, while learning about Australia’s enduring connection to these graceful creatures was an enthralling way to start the day. The sunset camel rides are insatiably popular, but the sunrise affair is a far quieter, less peopled experience.
Pearling is central to the story of Broome and the ensuing boom and bust cycle. Their European discovery in the 1800s fuelled a feverish wave of Asian migration to Broome, as epic as a gold rush. Pearl divers arrived in their droves to make their fortune, and that melting pot of multi-culturalism remains a key part of Broome’s character today.
The town is home to Australia’s largest Japanese cemetery, where tragedy drips from every headstone. Many young fortune-hunters died from drowning, the bends or shark attacks, while diving for pearls. Over 900 Japanese are interred here. Broome is still home to South Sea pearls, among the largest and most coveted commercially harvested cultured pearls in the world. You can visit a local pearl farm including the acclaimed Cygnet Bay or Willie Creek, while Chinatown boasts a scrum of showrooms touting the little dazzlers for sale.
A spectacular way to immerse yourself in the indigenous richness of Broome is to take a tour with Bart Pigram of Narlijia Cultural Tours. The young enterprising Yawuru man has developed some fascinating walking tours that thread together dazzling landscapes, dinosaur trackways, an ancient shell midden, storytelling and cultural insights, including a taste of Pigram family cuisine in the Runway Bar.
His family have a long history in pearling and music. You’ll sample a range of bush tucker including gubinge, snowball bush, bird flower pea and tropical sandalwood. You’ll love see Sun Pictures, the semi-outdoors cinema, which is celebrating its centenary.
Fancy a sun-splashed Broome break with all the frills? Cable Beach Club Resort is a hospitality show-stopper. Founded by the eccentric British politician, Lord Alistair McAlpine, he turned his dream into a reality, after buying the land with a contract signed on the back of a beer coaster in the Roebuck Bay pub.
Opened in 1988, the sumptuous resort, liberally swathed in tropical gardens and magnificent art installations, is a decadently dreamy spot to wallow in the beauty of Broome. Bonus points to the resort for concertedly training and employing dozens of young, local Aboriginals, who are unfailingly charming and personable.
As I was being transferred from the airport, the charismatic charm and typically dry Aussie humour was in fully cry from Ed, the resort’s shuttle driver, who wasted no time sharing his golden rules with us. Crocs were spotted in the water recently, so Ed made us promise we’d swim between the flags.
Throughout my stay, he was a trusty font of worldly advice and insider tips. This indulgent oasis is what distinctive holiday resorts are all about and you won’t go hungry, with four superb on-site restaurants. I particularly enjoyed the Italian eatery, Cichetti, where the meals are all about heart and flavour, with scrummy share plates accentuating the sociability factor.
But whether you’re staying in-house or not, as the sun lowers to the west, make a beeline to the Sunset Bar & Grill. Grab a ring-side seat, order up a cocktail and bask in the show – locals, tourists, loping camels and a blistering sunset setting fire to the Indian Ocean. www.cablebeachclub.com