Broome: Staircase to the moon

By Paul Rush

A lunar pathway leads to a town that is Australia’s ‘Pearl of the North’, writes Paul Rush.

Looking out over Roebuck Bay. Photo / Supplied
Looking out over Roebuck Bay. Photo / Supplied

As I stand on a hilltop overlooking Roebuck Bay, conditions are just right for me to abandon reason and succumb to a little lunacy.

The concept of a golden stairway climbing up to the moon is clearly an absurdity. But, as the great golden orb of the moon rises out of the Indian Ocean, a long pathway of glittering gold is reflected off the broad mudflats and ends almost at my feet.

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It's a natural phenomenon that owes its existence to the mammoth 11-metre tides that first inundate and then expose a kilometre of seabed along Western Australia's coast of Broome and the North West Kimberley. Only Nova Scotia's Bay of Fundy exceeds this diurnal tidal variation with rises of up to 14 metres.

The fascinating Staircase to the Moon optical illusion occurs on three nights each month from March to October and draws thousands of wide-eyed onlookers.

I drive to the Broome Town Wharf for a different vantage point but find the car park bulging with 4WD vehicles and a hundred camera flashes lighting up the scene in direct competition with the moon.

It's an appropriate first introduction to the little pearler of a town called Broome. I thought that one of the remotest towns in the world, 2237km from Perth and closer to Singapore than Sydney, would probably be fairly dull and predictable. There are only 16,000 residents, but I soon learn just how motivated and proactive they are when it comes to promoting their town. In the peak tourist season the population swells to 50,000 and it seems that very few visitors run the gauntlet of pearl shops without flashing their credit card and securing a gleaming, marble-sized pendant or a string of the finest cultured white pearls on the planet.

After an hour of chasing moonbeams I'm happy to head back to my hotel base, the Mercure Broome. It's a sprawling resort with two pools within tropical gardens, positioned between the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean and the contrasting red spinifex and acacia desert of the peninsula.

On first meeting the hotel's general manager, he surprises me with the words, "You should be proud to be a Kiwi," which is a significant departure from the usual sheep jokes that our neighbours derive such pleasure from repeating. He tells me he saw the televised commemorative service at Burnham Camp for the three soldiers killed in Afghanistan. "The fallen soldiers were farewelled in the most dignified manner," he says. "I was deeply moved by the genuine compassion and outpouring of grief, which burst forth into a spontaneous haka."

My first foray into downtown Broome offers more surprises. There's little time for browsing through the string of pearl shops and mooning around in the cafes today. The town is abuzz with excitement and the Shinju Matsuri Festival of the Pearl is in full swing. There are buskers in Chinatown, beer is flowing freely at 'The Roey', Broome's historic Roebuck Bay Hotel and a feast of local fare is being offered up at the Courthouse Markets.

I'm over the moon with all this frenetic activity in what I thought was going to be a sleepy little coastal town. Somehow, with all the comings and goings, I find myself in the path of Sammy the Chinese Dragon, who's leading the float parade. I'm so anxious to get a full frontal photograph of the snake-like, fire-breathing monster that I lose my wide-brimmed sunhat in the melee and a dozen centipede-like feet pass over it.

Robyn Maher, Broome's marketing guru, rescues me from the dragon parade and guides me hatless into the relative calm of the Long Table Fusion Lunch. We dine in style with a grey nomad couple from Melbourne who have attended the festival for the last seven years. Earlier in the week they had enjoyed 'Opera under the Stars' in a natural amphitheatre overlooking the ocean.

The lunch has a distinctive Chinatown feel, as rickshaws deliver six degustation courses from six different Broome restaurants. I meet some colourful local identities (there are many in Broome) including Freddy Corpus, a prominent 'Kimberleywood' movie actor and a onetime hard hat pearl diver who has been down to 60-metres in the desperate quest for pearl shell. He tells me that his mother was Aboriginal and his father Japanese and that thousands of Japanese pearl divers have worked here over the years.

The festivities will continue for ten days celebrating the unique pearling history and diversity of this vibrant, multi-cultural town. However, I want to get acquainted with another local institution with a kaleidoscopic past. Matso's award-winning microbrewery and cafe is a true Broome treasure. The building was among brothels, opium dens and mah-jong palaces in the bad old buccaneering days when the port was jam-packed with pearl luggers and thirsty divers.

Now, the heritage-listed building is famous as the must-go place for craft beers. I'm presented with a complete tasting tray of specialty beers. My favourite is the alcoholic Ginger beer closely followed by the low carb, high-heeled, 6.8 per cent Dirty Blonde.

Their most-awarded dark lager is the Smoky Bishop, named with his permission, after the local bishop who is partial to an occasional puff and a sip of the amber liquid. He sampled the new product and was so impressed he blessed the brewery there and then. I was mildly coerced into trying the Hit the Toad lager, a Pilsener-style beer, as the brewery donates A$10,000 each year to the Stop the Toad Foundation. The ubiquitous Queensland cane toad has already infiltrated the Western Australia borders and seems virtually unstoppable.

Broome has a host of interesting things to do. Sun Pictures, the unique 1916 movie theatre can claim to be the world's oldest operating outdoor picture garden. On beautiful Cable Beach there's an atmospheric camel ride timed for the vivid orange/red sunset that lightens up the western sky. My stalwart mount, Kabul is the alpha male, amazingly strong and broad of back - so broad that I walk bow-legged for a time after dismounting. He walked all the way from Queensland to join the merry band at Broome.

The Willie Creek Pearl Farm Tour is an entertaining and educational experience, providing a unique insight into the modern cultured pearling process. The Pearling Lugger Experience is a delightful journey back in time to Broome's swashbuckling heyday, with an exciting ride on a 1903 lugger called Intombi, the Zulu word for a young maiden.

I've enjoyed my stay in Broome and have made a clean sweep of its diverse attractions. Next September, Sammy the Dragon will awake from his year-long slumber and set out on his high-spirited street parade. I'll be prepared this time, well positioned, hatless and ready to follow in his wake all the way to the Mardi Gras. Broome will be dusted off, in ship-shape and Bristol fashion and be ready to welcome the world once more.


Getting There
Air New Zealand flies direct from Auckland to Perth. Broome is a 2½-hour flight from Perth by Skywest Airlines.

Getting Around
Broome Broome Car Rentals has a fleet of 150 vehicles including 4WD saloons for those who want to explore the Outback.

Festival of the Pearl
Shinju Matsuri has been held for 42 years around the August or September full moon and spring tides to coincide with the Staircase to the Moon.

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