Broome in Western Australia

Broome, Western Australia

Camel trek in Broome in Western Australia. Photo by Tourism Western Australia Set on a peninsula overlooking the Indian Ocean, Broome could hardly have a better location. On one side the 22 km of Cable Beach - said to be one of the best beaches in Australia - stretch unbroken in an endless expanse of white sand and on the other the wide sheltered Roebuck bay provides safe anchorage for the pearling luggers which have brought so much wealth to the town. Behind clipped hedges and bright bougainvillea neat houses line wide avenues running down to the sea but be warned for this impression of order and calm conceals a history as colourful as the blue sea breaking on the beaches beyond.

Broome's history

One of the northern most towns of Western Australia, the coastal area around Broome was first visited by Macassan fishermen from Indonesia harvesting sea slugs - a prized delicacy - several hundred years before William Dampier, the first European to explore these waters sailed along the low lying coast in 1688. A British buccaneering adventurer, he paused to name Roebuck Bay after his ship and then sailed on.

For nearly a century and half the remote coastline received sporadic visits and it was not until the mid nineteenth century that the chance discovery of a new species of oyster growing in the muddy waters of the bay that Broome was really put on the map.

Sunset at Broome, Western Australia. Photo by Nick Haslam Within 40 years the town had become one of the world's major suppliers of mother of pearl, the silver lining of oyster shells widely used to make buttons. In the early 1900s Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian and Aboriginal divers worked the oyster beds offshore from pearling luggers and large fortunes were made.

But it was risky work, as the serried tombstones in the town's cemeteries will testify, for many died in accidents or from the bends using the primitive hard hat diving outfits of the day.

At its peak foreign workers and Aboriginals outnumbered whites three to one, creating a cosmopolitan atmosphere which was unique in Australia at the time. A real frontier town Broome prospered and had its very own Chinatown with brothels, gambling and opium dens. But the depression of the 1920s, followed by World War 2 when the town was bombed by the Japanese, put paid to the pearling industry.

However, resilient as ever, Broome soon bounced back. Despite the mother of pearl being superseded by plastic buttons, the actual pearls produced by the Pinctada Maxima oyster which grow in Roebuck Bay proved a best seller and Broome is now a world class producer of some of the most lustrous cultured pearls on the market.

Video: Western Australia's pearl

Broome burst into life as a hub of the international pearl trade in the 1880 and its gems remain the world's most highly prized. Follow the journey of the pearl from humble beginnings in the aqua waters of Roebuck Bay to the glittering cases of boutiques around the world and see how the trade has defined the very spirit of the town.

Modern Broome

Today Broome has a population of 15,000 residents which more than doubles during the tourist season from May until October with visitors who come from all over the world. Chinatown is still very much a part of Broome's life but the distinctive architectural mix of colonial and Asian buildings now house some of the world's best pearl shops. As Broome's main shopping area it is busy with tourists browsing in the narrow alleys where shops and pavement cafés are sheltered from the fierce tropical sun by graceful curved roofs of corrugated iron.

At the Pearl Luggers museum two large boats are on display with a detailed history of the pearling industry and there are tasting samples on offer of the delicious pearl meat of the Pinctada Maxima. Just beyond, the Old Pearler's Quarters, with timber buildings which were once bunkhouses for the divers, stand by the remains of the first jetty which runs out into the mangrove lined creek where luggers used to land their haul.

Outdoor cafe in China town, Broome, Western Australia. Photo by Nick HaslamPractically next door, the lazy circling ceiling fans and wide shaded verandahs at Matso's Bar strongly evoke the old days in Broome. It has been a bank, brothel and a general store in its chequered career, and today is the only boutique brewery in the Kimberley.

In the gardens around the courthouse weekly markets are held on Saturdays selling everything from art and crafts to clothing and food. There is usually a live band playing in the shade of the mango trees by the Courthouse.

In the evenings Sun Pictures - the oldest open air cinema in the world - is still running, with rows of canvas seats set out invitingly under the stars. It's very close to the small airport though, so don't be surprised if a passenger jet suddenly drowns out the soundtrack as it flies close overhead on its landing approach.

With practically no light pollution, and a guaranteed 300 cloud free nights a year, the stars in Broome seem almost within reach. Greg Quick, a former pearl diver and cattle musterer now runs astro tours most evenings in a field close to Broome which provide a fascinating insight into the constellations and galaxies of the southern hemisphere brilliant in the night sky overhead.

Greg Quicke
Greg Quicke, Astro tours Broome
"Broome's great for stars because we get 300 clear nights a year - we've got access to all of the southern hemisphere and most of the northern hemisphere"

In the port area of the town the Japanese and Chinese cemeteries are a testament to all those who died diving for pearls or from disease in the early days. Here the long jetty stretches out to sea where live steers from the cattle stations of the Kimberley are shipped to Indonesia and other Asian markets.

At the entrance to the jetty is the Spirit of Broome, Australia's only hovercraft tour company which takes tourists to the other side of Roebuck Bay, zipping across the mudflats and beaches to ancient rock formations where dinosaur prints which are more than 100 million years old can clearly be seen.

June Colless
June Colless, Director of Spirit of Broome Hovercraft Company
"I really can recommend coming to Broome - particularly in our winter from May until November when I think we have a climate which is second to none"

The Town Beach is the best place to see the Staircase to the Moon, when the combination of full moon and low tide create reflections on the flat mudflats which seem to build a stairway into the heavens.

Broome Surf club juniors. Photo by Nick Haslam On the other side of the peninsula the vast expanse of Cable Beach extends for 22 kilometres to the distant horizon. Check on the board at the entrance to the beach to make sure there are no nasty stingers or crocodiles lurking in the surf before you plunge into the wonderfully warm water. The surf can be very big here so be sure to swim between the safety flags - lifeguards are on patrol here every day in the season. Cable Beach is popular too at the end of the day at weekends when many Broomites come to watch the sun go down, settling themselves comfortably on folding chairs and beach blankets with a chilled bottle or two.

Those who feel more energetic can watch the sun slip below the sea from a swaying camel back on the popular camel rides at dusk along the beach.

Read more about Outback adventures in Western Australia
Responsible Travel would like to thank the Western Australia tourist board for their sponsorship of this guide
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