Friday, October 31, 2014

Sweeping through Broome

Baobab at Town Beach, Broome.

On those bitterly cold, winter school holidays Down Under, when temperatures in Aussie cities can plummet to a frigid 10˚c, the Lucky Country's population migrates en masse to warmer climes. In Western Australia, Bali is a popular destination, but the domestic option is Broome, on the Kimberley coast.

A three bedroom deluxe family bungalow at Cocos Beach Bungalows was our home base in Broome for one week in June, 2010. At that time we paid about AUD$390/night for a six night stay at what's considered a moderately priced resort. Our pleasant accommodation featured 3 bedrooms (1 queen bed with an en suite and three single beds) and second bathroom with separate toilet. I can't vouch for the television, which remained untested throughout the week. The location is superb, about a 300 meter (5 minute) walk from Cable Beach.

Everything about Cable Beach is big.

Cable Beach is one of the iconic strands of Australia, meeting a high bar for a continent known for its seashore. The first thing you notice is the scale, 22 kilometers of fine sand nearly as wide as a football field is long. Excluding Bondi near Sydney, Australian beaches have a lot of elbow room in general. Nudists and exhibitionists often have to search out an audience. Cable almost swallows its visitors in its vastness. Wave action has winnowed away most of the iron oxide, so the pale beach sand contrasts against the ubiquitous earthy-red soil of the Kimberley farther inland. There is the occasional, low-lying outcrop good for smashing your toe, but the beach is well suited to long, quiet walks, and the gentle surf is great for kids most of the time. Cable Beach is just as likely to close for salt water crocodiles as it is for sharks, so I can't help but wonder whether these two swimming hazards ever interact.

Ghost crabs make their own version of snow angels, but with sand.

Then there are the camels. Somehow, riding these gangly, non-native animals in a long caravan down the beach has become the quintessential Broome experience. Australia hosts the world's largest population of feral Camelidae, and at some point someone saw a business opportunity in the local loiterers. Several rows of them are lined up on opposite sides of the main south entrance to Cable Beach, a couple managed by feuding handlers amidst accusations of dung flinging and theft. Human nature dictates people will go to war over anything. We went with a third handler, Broome Camel Safaris, who appear to have stayed out of the spitting match. Prices were $75 for adults and $40 for the kids ($10 for lap children under 5) on the sunset safari. Australia is not cheap as a rule, and Broome is a holiday destination predominantly for Australians.

All the challenge of camel riding--at least the slow, plodding kind of riding--is at the start. To stand up, a dromedary camel must first fully raise its haunches. leaving the rider looking straight down from a height that could cause some damage. You have to lean backwards as far as possible to remain vertical (and in your seat) until your mount gets his front legs straightened up under him. Then it's merely a matter of staying in your seat as your camel follows the leader. For most of the camels, the scenery never changes, while riders have the option of looking around. Camels seem very casual about evacuating their intestines to make way for more dinner, so I couldn't help notice the beach remained spotless as we retraced our tracks after a long walk northwards up the shoreline. I suspect an entry-level position with the tour operator includes an unpleasant job at the rear end of the caravan. My wife swears the camels were wearing diapers, but I don't want to admit to checking out their posteriors.

Other area beaches each has its own character. Perhaps most distinctive are the ruddy cliffs of Reddell beach on the southwest side of the Broome Peninsula. These take on an even more fiery hue near sunset, particularly at nearby Gantheaume Point. Kids, including those over 40, love climbing in and around the rocks.

Gantheaume Point on the north end of Reddell Beach.

Another highlight was a half-day afternoon cruise on the historic wooden pearl lugger Intombe, built in 1903. Even its name drips adventure. At $159 per adult ($115 for kids 14 or younger), it's also not cheap, but a catered sunset sail in tropical waters makes for a lifetime memory if you can swing it, and you savor your antipasto when you've paid dearly for it. The kids brought their swimsuits and enjoyed trailing behind the boat while grasping a thick rope "net." The boat only holds about 20 passengers and crew, so it's an intimate experience. I will forever carry the memory of wading off our small tender onto Cable Beach, under the light of a nearly full moon rising amidst the belt of Venus. Broome is a twilight temple of the setting sun and rising moon.

Sunset on Intombe.

Broome's climate is suited to the cultivation of mangoes. We briefly left the seaside and spent a couple good hours at the Mango Place, 18 kilometers northeast of town just off Broome Road (the only sealed road out of town) on Kanagae Drive. The Mango Place offers an assortment of treats, including mango wines, jams, candy, smoothies and fresh ice cream. I should have taken a few pictures, but I was too busy sampling the wares.

As much as I love the ocean and days at the beach, wanderlust drives me to see as much as possible when on holiday, until I'm exhausted enough to crave a relaxing work day. There are only so many driveable options from Broome. Our rental car agreement expressly forbade traveling the unsealed route to Cape Leveque. Now, while I am sure just about every tourist headed to the cape promptly ignores that contract condition, my risk-averse nature always prepares for the offseason cyclone, and sobriety won out. But there are some other nearby options.

Broome Bird Observatory has several pleasant bush walks through acacia scrub and features alien landscapes along the shoreline of Roebuck Bay, 25 kilometers east of town. My oldest son Thomas, a birdwatcher, enjoyed learning about the migratory wading birds that flock here as a staging area for their mass autumn migrations to the northern hemisphere. Being June, we just missed the exodus, but we had the pleasure of an immense sanctuary largely to ourselves. The last few kilometers drive to the bird sanctuary were locally rutted, and I couldn't help but think the road to Cape Leveque is probably in better shape.

Unless the crocodiles hid behind a rock, you could see them coming. Is this what Buzz Aldrin meant by "magnificent desolation?"

My wife Stacey offhandedly suggested another day excursion to the Willie Creek Pearl farm. "There's a lot to do," she said, "including a boat tour of the pearling beds, natural history lectures, and helicopter flights. The drive itself is a chance to get a little off-road." And, "we could browse the showroom, just for fun." I convinced myself it was a good excuse for a road trip, but deep down I was pretty sure "just looking" would end in the purchase of a South Seas pearl, one of the trifecta of Australian gemstones, along with opals from Coober Pedy and pink diamonds from the Kimberley's Argyle diamond mine.

The self-drive from town was a pleasurable 45 minutes of low-impact "bush track" after leaving pavement. Overall, the drive is about an hour from Broome. I had to stop and inspect a few of the massive, slag-shaped termite mounds dotting the countryside; Lackawanna, New York would clearly be in much better shape if it had similarly been built by blind insects.

The ingress immediately north of Willie Creek estuary traverses tidal flats that can flood in summer, but the track was high and dry in June and well marked. Arriving at the well-apportioned facility, we went with the two-hour family (2 + 2) tour for $165. Our youngest (below 5) was free. The experience begins with a boat tour through turquoise waters of the sheltered tidal lagoon where the oysters are cultivated. The guide pulled up a few of the metal baskets along a row as if to prove the pearls were locally-derived. Farther out, a posing saltie sunned on the side of a sandbar, patiently waiting for a casualty from the side of the boat if it capsized from the rush of photographers to one side. The kids were behaving very well, so I had no reason to make them part of the entertainment. Crocodiles might not eat for months, so this one could afford to be patient.

Back at the farm a staff member dissected one of the local citizens to explain the farming process from seeding of an oyster through to the harvest. The local industry appears to have trademarked the term "South Seas cultured pearl," which is ironic considering its geographic location on the north side of Australia. A score of people listening intently to the life cycle of a mollusc is not something you see every day. It was a good experience for everyone but the oyster, whose civil rights were violated. The workers here get no benefits.

Map from

Part of the paid tour was "time in the jewellery showroom." I wasn't quite sure why this would be part of the experience I'd need to pay for. While we were inspecting one ring she particularly admired, Stacey innocently asked "why don't you and the boys go up on the helicopter for a scenic tour?" She knows how to negotiate. A brief scenic flight is about $70, and there are longer options. When I got back from our five-minute flight above the breathtaking, electric colors of the Kimberley on an emotional high-note, Stacey had already won her pearl of great price.

We spent very little actual time in the town of Broome, which
has the usual assortment of pleasant cafés, art galleries (Denise Walker's shoreline paintings are particularly stunning) and tourist traps. However, our last night in Broome we watched a first run of Toy Story 3 under the stars at Sun Pictures, which bills itself as the world's oldest continuously-operating picture gardens. It's essentially an open-air courtyard with lawn chairs, fronted by a big screen. I think the highlight for our boys was the sight of a massive airplane passing overhead on its way out.

Sun Pictures

A recurring natural phenomenon we missed by just a few days was the "stairway to the moon," the optical illusion of glowing stairs reaching up to the rising full moon that is caused by moonlight reflecting off exposed tidal mudflats of Roebuck Bay during very low tide. This occurs three nights a month between March and October at Town Beach, on the east side of Broome. Just as well for the tourists, because the hot and sticky Kimberley is not a summer destination. It's a big hit, and local vendors have even found ways to monetize a heavenly body; there is plenty of available side merchandizing of the otherwise free experience.

So we missed one iconic moment in a place where superlatives abound, especially the price tag. Reason to go again.

June, 2010
(note- I updated prices to reflect 2014 fares)