Thursday, 22 June 2017

Broome WA


After visiting Australia many times, and asking people where their favourite place was – I was surprised how many times Broome came up! What was it about this small town in the middle of nowhere that everyone raved about? I needed to go for myself and see what it had to offer. I did some research and was surprised how many things there were to do in and around Broome. I was especially interested in seeing the Staircase to the Moon, a natural phenomenon where the full moon light reflects off the mud flats at low tide, and creates the illusion of a staircase going up towards the moon. The photographs I saw of this convinced me that Broome had got to be my next destination. This phenomenon only happens a few days each month, and only in certain months; so I had to work out exactly when was the right time to fly up to Broome.

The best place to see it is Roebuck Bay, so I booked the Mangrove Hotel, in that bay – so that I would have a front row view. I arrived just as the sun was setting (the night before it was supposed to happen), and settled myself in before heading off to the outside bar-cum-restaurant. I have never been anywhere where there is insect repellant in huge dispensers on the bar - for you to help yourself. I could easily see why - even the staff had been bitten through their clothes. 

After an early night, I was ready to start exploring. I got up in time for the sunrise - and I was so glad that I did - no one ever mentioned a Staircase to the Sun.

It was wonderful! It was only 7am when I headed out, and I had breakfast a Matso's Brewery - somewhere that everyone had recommended.

As I had a sore throat, I wanted something soft - so I ended up with cold rice pudding with mango, lemongrass, raisins and coconut - it was delicious.

Then I walked along the coast, past the well-manicured Bedford Park and the famous statue of the pregnant aboriginal diving girl - apparently due to a change in red blood cells, pregnant women can hold their breathe for longer than men. Sadly this caused them to be exploited by the Pearling Masters.


There is also a memorial where you can read about the 1942 Japanese Air Raids and see the war memorials. 

Next I came to an opening to get onto the beach, the tide was out and I could see footsteps, so down I went. It wasn't an impressive beach and you couldn't see the turquoise ocean, as mangrove trees obscured the view.

I followed the footsteps along the hard sand, keeping an eye and ear out for anything rustling - that might want to eat me. Getting back onto the grassy road was not that easy, I stepped on what I thought was hard sand and I sunk down into it.

That was scary, both my feet were stuck and although I got out, I looked a right sight with red mud half way up my calves. I had reached Town beach, which was a far more attractive part of Roebuck Bay, the sand was clean, gentle waves lapped the shore, there was a grassy park, picnic tables, a cafe - but nowhere for me to clean my muddy feet. 

Close to here is Broome Museum where you can learn about the history of this place and it is very cheap to get in, but it didn't open until 10am. It was not even 9am, and I decided to catch the Town Bus to see some more of Broome, it was only $10 for a day ticket, and this bus did a complete circuit every hour. The only downside was that it didn't start running until 9am - I would have preferred a few hours earlier.

Broome is on a peninsular, and its other landmark beach was on the opposite coast - Cable Beach - that's where I headed. It is an expanse of white sand, as far as the eye can see - in both directions. I found it disappointing that this iconic beach, now had deck chairs and umbrellas on it - although only near the amenities.

I daren't go in the water, no matter how inviting it looked, as poisonous jellyfish had been spotted there only a few days’ earlier - as well as regular sightings of larger predators! I caught the bus back towards town and stopped off at the Boulevard Shopping Centre for some essential items, before heading back to my hotel for a rest before the sunset and Staircase to the Moon. 

People began arriving to get their seats as early as 4:30pm, and 2 hours later the hotel put some very atmospheric aboriginal music on, just as the moon began to appear. I have never seen anything like it; it was the brightest orange ball that simply lit up the sky.

In the 20 minutes that it rose from the ocean, the steps/stairway appeared below it on the mud flats of the bay. It was incredibly emotional, the only sound was the music and the only light was the moon. I felt so privileged to have witnessed it and apparently it was especially bright and colourful that night.

Next morning I went on a half-day tour of Broome, it would have been really difficult to get to some places otherwise - I didn't fancy walking further than I needed to in that heat. The first stop was Cable Beach where we were told about the first undersea telegraph cable linking Australia to the rest of the world. 

Then we headed out to Gantheaume Point with its red pindan rock faces overlooking the turquoise ocean. There used to be a lighthouse there, and the lighthouse keeper built a pool for his arthritic wife to bathe in, amongst the rocks, this was called Anastasia's Pool - sadly the ocean has now claimed this back and you just have to imagine how it looked.

As well as being a place of astounding beauty, Gantheaume Point is famous for the number of dinosaur footprints that have been found there, although most of these are now only exposed in reef rock at extremely low tides. There are concrete casts of some by the car park.

It was a lovely place to take photos of the colourful rock formations and the view of Cable beach stretching away in the distance. We drove around the town next,  it isn't a very big town but it has a rich pearling history and a multi cultural mixture of people and with its pristine ocean, it now attracts thousands of visitors every year.

It has only been a tourist destination since the 1980’s when its historical buildings were restored, including The Sun Pictures (cinema), a zoo was built and several hotels sprang up on the main beaches.

We drove along Dampier Terrace, seeing the Oldest Pub “The Roebuck”, The Pearl Luggers, the Old Streeters Wharf, and the main shopping areas - old and new. There are some old buildings, such as the Court House, dating back to 1889, showing the mixture of Colonial and Asian architecture from over a century ago.

You must walk through Johnny Chi Historical Walk, the mall that links the two main streets - you can't miss it – it’s bright red and by the bus stop. There are some of the world's finest Pearl showrooms, souvenir shops as well as supermarkets and a McDonalds - as in almost every town. There is a newly refurbished Tourist Information centre where you can book tours, accommodation and get lots of advice and maps. 

We had a quick stop at the Buddha Sanctuary, to see the four metre tall, hand carved crystal Buddha in its ornamental gardens, they give yoga classes here most days. Our guide told us much about the local flora and fauna as well as information on the local indigenous people, their beliefs, sacred trees etc. The Yawuru people are the Native Title Holders of Broome and its surrounding district, their name means “One Spirit, One Feeling, One Mind”. We stopped at the Japanese Cemetery, a poignant reminder of the countless people who lost their lives during the pearling heyday last century when Broome was famous for the Mother of Pearl shell rather than pearls; this was used for buttons before other materials became available.

The local shell called The Pinctada Maxima was the biggest of its type in the world; Aboriginal people originally collected them from local beaches and creeks - before it was developed into a thriving industry. Then the reserves dried up and diving became the only means of retrieving the shells from the deeper ocean. Pearl divers were bought in from Asia, wearing rubber suits, brass or copper helmets, and weighted boots. As many as ten per cent of these divers succumbed to attacks by sharks, drowned in tropical storms, or were paralyzed with The Bends.


By 1900 Broome’s pearl industry accounted for 80 percent of the world’s supply of pearl buttons, but this fell into decline after World War Two. Now pearls are cultivated here, a skill taught to them by the Japanese (although the secret was first discovered by British Biologist William Saville-Kent). We were told lighthearted tales too, before being taken for a delicious high tea at the Zoo Keepers Cafe.

It was a delightful morning tour, from a very knowledgeable guide - who told me that his favourite spot for the sunset was Riddell Beach - but that is one mainly for the locals as no buses go down that way.  After an hour or so rest, I caught the local bus back to Cable Beach; to see the sunset there was something I really wanted to do - and it didn't disappoint.

Although there was cloud cover, it was a magnificent spectacle - and I even saw some camel trains taking people for a sunset ride. I had worked my timings and the buses out right, and headed back over to Town Beach to see the Staircase to the Moon for its second night. There was a wonderful atmosphere when I arrived, music, food, craft stalls and thousands of people - how disappointing though that the conditions weren't right for the moon to appear like it had previously. 

But I had, had a good day and couldn't complain. I needed to get ready for my big day tomorrow. I had seen a TV programme about the most fantastic tour available from Broome, to experience The Horizontal Waterfalls, it was something I just had to do! This part of the coast has the biggest tides in the southern hemisphere – 10 metres between high and low tide; and there are only 2 waterfalls in the world that are described as horizontal – and they are both here. David Attenborough described them as 'One of the greatest natural wonders of the world'. I was collected very early for the seaplane flight up to Talbot Bay and was lucky enough to be able to sit up-front in the Co-pilot's seat.

The view of the falls coming in to land as amazing; twice a day, a tidal surge crashes into the coast, through the bottleneck in between twin parallel gaps of the McLarty Ranges – seawater builds up faster on the seaward side that it becomes trapped being pushed through horizontally as a waterfall. When the tide changes, so does the waterfalls direction causing a whirlpool effect.

It is described as a unique spectacle that should be on everyone’s bucket list. Once we landed in Cyclone Bay (so called because it is a shelter from cyclones) we jumped aboard a powerboat and experienced the thrill of speeding through the first waterfall, but the tide/whirlpool was too high at that time (at 3.5 metres) to try the second, narrower one - the water would have tipped the boat over.

But we were taken really close to them and could feel their power. After a cooked breakfast on the floating pontoon, we watched wild nurse sharks being fed, before being allowed in the water into a cage to see the sharks up close. Under supervision I was allowed to touch one of them - it felt like the coarsest sand paper.

Once we had dried off, we went on a cruise around the bay, seeing the huge tidal lines on the surrounding cliffs - which were ablaze with colour; we didn't see any crocodiles though. Then it was time to board the seaplane for the return flight; although we left Talbot Bay in glorious sunshine, within a few minutes the weather had taken a turn for the worse.

I managed to see quite a lot of the Buccaneer Archipelago (also known as Thousand Island Archipelago) – 2600 islands, which are 30 percent of all Australia’s islands – that lie in these beautiful azure tropical waters. Thousands of years ago the sea level was much lower, but as it has rose, it has left an amazing sight that is continually sculptured by the relentless flow of the world's most powerful tides.

The rugged islands, most of which are completely unspoilt stretch 500 miles along the Kimberley Coast and generally offer the most incredible views, but a storm was looming and by the time we reached Cape Leveque, I could hardly make out the white lighthouse below. But as we approached Broome, visibility had improved and I had a good view of Willie Creek and Cable Beach.
Willie Creek Pearl Farm and Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm offer tours showing how the “Australian South Sea Pearl” is produced, from the early days of pearling to the modern day processes that are used - giving an excellent insight into how Broome became the Pearling Capital of Australia. Both are in delightful settings and have showrooms selling a great range of pearls. After I returned from my seaplane adventure, I caught the local bus into Chinatown and had a look through some of the Pearl shops and was very surprised how reasonable the prices were.

It is on the list of Ten Things you must do whilst in Broome - buy a pearl.......maybe later! I wandered through the malls, along the few streets - that looked like they were from the set of a western movie, and had close look at the Sun Cinema. I walked along Streeters Jetty with the mangroves below me, just imagining how it would look when the tide came in; I later learned that a crocodile was caught just there only the week before. 

I popped into the Visitors Centre; there is always something interesting to pick up from a Visitors Centre, before heading back to my hotel. The weather had become very humid and sticky, and the cloud cover stopped the moon appearing again - it was good that I had, had one night out of the three to take some brilliant photos.

Next morning I went out nice and early, before it was too hot and found the Courthouse Market; what a fabulous place that turned out to be - far better than I was expecting. There were locals carving wood, playing didgeridoos and offering guided walks.

You could have your fortune told, a tattoo or even had you haircut  - right there in full view of all the shoppers. There were stalls selling a whole range of hand made crafts, soaps, leather items, string, wool, material and of course jewellery. So I just had to treat myself to a Broome pearl - the Guidebook made me do it!

There was a vast array of different types of food and drinks to try, but my favourite was the Mango smoothie stall - that was delicious. I wandered back to my hotel for a rest by the pool before I was collected for my Sunset Hovercraft ride to see the dinosaur footprints. The weather, which had been looking more overcast all day decided to pour it down, just as I left my hotel.  

When I reached the Hovercraft base, they had the meteorological site on the computer and assured us all that the storm was clearing very quickly and our tour would be going ahead. The base was situated in the most picturesque surroundings, overlooking the ocean with scarlet cliffs to the side - it was such a pity it was in torrential rain. After our safety briefing we all climbed into the hovercraft and off we went; the visibility was so bad though we couldn't see anything.

The pilot asked a few of us to move seats to rebalance the hovercraft, but he still wasn't happy; it wasn't the weather - it was the power. He limped onto nearby Town Beach and the bus had to collect us to take us all back to the base. Whilst we were waiting for the bus, he pointed out the crocodile trap that had been set, trying to catch the 3.5 metre crocodile that was about at the minute. Oh my! I had been walking within 5 metres of that trap twice in the last few days. 

Once back at the base, the staff could not have been more accommodating; we were served delicious nibbles and champagne under the marquee and were all given an alternative date (if the craft was fixable) or a refund. It wouldn't have been very nice standing out in the rain looking for the footprints - I just hoped that it was fixed before I left Broome.

Next morning the sun was shining, hardly any sign of the downpour the night before, and I went on a catamaran for 3 hours. It was described as an Eco tour and we were certainly given plenty of information about conservation and the creatures that inhabit the bay.

The skipper was brilliant, within 10 minutes he had spotted some Stubfin dolphins close to the boat. They are a new species, only discovered in 2005, and there may be less than a 1000 of them in total, ranging from Broome to Townsville.

They are smaller than most other types of dolphin, only growing to 1400mm, and a light brown colour; I was very happy to have seen something so unique in the wild. Further around Roebuck Bay we came to an area of sea grass where there were more dugongs feeding than the skipper had ever seen; they were a similar colouring to the dolphins, something else that I had never expected to see - I certainly did feel lucky.

We were given water, cakes, frittatas and fruit throughout the cruise and it could not have been anymore perfect. The red coast looked magnificent, and the long black pier contrasted perfectly against the azure ocean.

The tidal range here is one of the largest in the world - almost 10 metres every day; bringing a fresh supply of food to its resident ocean population.

I do hope this area manages to get the status of a Marine Park - there is so much to protect up here. It was a delightful trip, very reasonably priced and worth every penny - I can highly recommend it. After my last afternoon by the pool, and a dip or two to cool off, I could not resist going to Cable Beach for my last sunset. 

The receptionist at my hotel had recommended having a cocktail called ' A Postcard from Broome' at the Sunset Bar - now that sounded like something I should definitely try. The sun was still quite high in the sky when I arrived at Cable Beach and there were no clouds. The bus driver, Robyn (who I had come to know quite well as I had travelled with her so many times) said it wasn't cloudy enough for a good sunset picture. So I had my cocktail, which went down far too easily, but was too expensive to have another and headed onto the mud flats for my last sunset.

I could not believe how many vehicles were heading onto the beach, over the treacherous rocks for the sunset - it was going to be pitch black in less than an hour and they had to navigate their way back over these rocks again. Hundreds of 4X4's full of people with picnics, drinks, cameras - all here to enjoy this spectacle. And what a spectacle it was, the orange sky, the shining mud flats, the reflections in the rock pools - it was amazing. 

I was very aware of the time, as the last bus left only twenty five minutes after the sunset and I could only go so far down the beach to get back in time, I knew the camel rides were too far away to photograph them closely tonight. I was completely carried away taking far too many photographs of the sun setting and hadn't realised how close the camels had got - I looked around and they were so close. I could not believe it, could not believe my luck - could I really get the photograph of the Camels on Cable Beach at Sunset? Oh yes I did, and what an incredible shot or two I got.

I was so happy. Once the sun had gone below the horizon, the spectacle didn't end - the whole sky shone with a vibrant orange glow, reflecting on the dark mud flats - I did not want it to end. I could not stop looking at the amazing sky right up until the moment I got on the bus - and then it was total darkness. What a last night I had had in Broome.

Now it was time to pack and have an early night as I was having a very early start - if the hovercraft was mended!  Well it was all systems go, the leak in the turbo was fixed and the hovercraft was operating. The sun was just coming over the horizon, as we set off over the mud flats of Roebuck Bay, totally unobtrusive to the hundreds of migratory birds wading in the mud.

This area is known as the Dinosaur Footprint Capital of the world, and only a week before I arrived a new footprint was discovered - the biggest ever found. My enthusiasm for paleontology was running away with me, I could just imagine every dinosaur from the Theropod to the Brachiosaurus strolling along the red sandstone cliffs 120 million years ago. As the light rose, the surroundings became a blaze of colour - it was hard to believe that I was standing on such a significant spot in the history of the world. 

Some of the footprints were watery puddles in the rocks - these were easy to spot; others were compressed pads rising on top of the rocks. The whole area was magical and I was so pleased to have been able to witness it, as well as the experience of travelling in an eco friendly amphibious vessel that causes no distress to the environment - just gliding over the tidal flats. Leaving a minimal footprint - not like the dinosaurs!

So was the end of my trip to Broome; there were more things to do up there, the golf course, the races, the crocodile farm and walks around Minyirr Park - but they may be for another time. I had thoroughly enjoyed my time in Broome, all the tours had been exceptional, the sunsets, sunrises and moonrises had been more colourful than I ever could have thought possible and everyone had been so friendly. I was surprised how early everywhere closed - even the bus service; but everywhere was exceptionally clean, tidy and well kept. The transit service from the airport to the hotel was very reliable and only $15 for a return trip - excellent value. I could certainly see why so many people say that Broome is their favourite place in Australia - it is an incredible place, with so much beauty, history, charm and character - go on, put it on your list.


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