Travel: Broome a pearl of great price

By Paul Rush

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.

It's a natural phenomenon that owes its existence to the mammoth 11m tides that first inundate and then expose 1km of seabed along Western Australia's coast of Broome and the Northwest Kimberley.

Only Nova Scotia's Bay of Fundy exceeds this tidal variation with its rise of 14m.

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 camera flashes lighting up the scene in direct competition with the moon.

It's an appropriate first introduction to the little pearler of the 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 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, 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," a welcome departure from the usual sheep jokes.

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 coastal town.

Somehow I find myself in the path of Sammy the Chinese Dragon, who's leading the float parade. But Robyn Maher, Broome's marketing guru, rescues me from the dragon parade and guides me 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 past 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, with rickshaws delivering six degustation courses from six different restaurants.

I meet some colourful local identities - there are many in Broome - including Freddy Corbus, a prominent Kimberleywood movie actor and a onetime hard-hat pearl diver who has been down to 60m in the quest for pearl shell. He tells me that his mother was Aborigine and his father Japanese, and that thousands of Japanese pearl divers have worked here over the years.

The festivities will continue for 10 days celebrating the pearling history and diversity of this vibrant, multicultural 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 Broom treasure. The building was among the brothels, opium dens and mah-jong palaces in the bad old buccaneer 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 $10,000 each year to the Stop the Toad Foundation. The ubiquitous Queensland cane toad has already crossed the Western Australia borders and seems virtually unstoppable.

Broome has a host interesting things to do. Sun Pictures, the 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 an 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 Ntombi, 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 year, Sammy the Dragon will awake from his long slumber and set out on his high-spirited street parade. I'll be prepared this time, well positioned, ready to follow him all the way to the Mardi Gras.

Broome will be dusted off, all shipshape and Bristol fashion and be ready to welcome the world once more.

Paul Rush visited Broome courtesy of Air New Zealand, Skywest Airlines, Tourism Western Australia and Mercure Broome Hotel.

- Hamilton News

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