Western Australia: Playtime at the pearly gates

By Patrice Gaffaney

Visitors flock to Cable Beach for camel rides, especially in the evenings, as the temperature drops and the sun sets over the Indian Ocean. Photo / Tourism Western Australia
Visitors flock to Cable Beach for camel rides, especially in the evenings, as the temperature drops and the sun sets over the Indian Ocean. Photo / Tourism Western Australia

It's about 5pm and I'm on a camel on a beach in far northwestern Australia. It's Cable Beach, 22km of pristine white sand along which my train of very sedate camels is ambling, carefully dodging the picnicking families.

The locals are used to this, apparently, as it's a daily event. People flock to Cable Beach for a camel ride at all times of the day, but especially in the evening as it's a very special way to watch the sun set over the sparkling, turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean.

Phoenix, my 8-year-old camel, behaved perfectly, despite still having his L plates. I had fears that my Lawrence of Arabia moment might end in ignominy, with an unscheduled dip in the sea, but Phoenix knew better, thankfully.

My trekmates and I were returned safely and I strolled along the sand as dusk descended, watching the waves lap the shore and enjoying the warmth of the evening. I couldn't have asked for a more perfect way to end my first day in Broome.

Getting to Broome is a trek in itself. The five-hour flight from Sydney took me across Australia's parched, red interior. Then, suddenly, the blue-green waters of the Indian Ocean are twinkling ahead and before I know it we've landed. As I exit the plane, the humid heat encases me, all 30C of it. It's a shock after coming from chilly Auckland.

My home for the next five days is the Pinctada Cable Beach Spa resort, a luxurious 72-room boutique hotel named after the shell in which pearls are cultured, pinctada maxima.

Pearls mean a lot in Broome. It's fair to say the town wouldn't exist if it wasn't for those creamy nuggets, which are now cultured, but in the 1800s were found in their thousands in giant pinctada maxima shells that could be picked off the shore at low tide.

The locals say Broome was built on buttons, because what brought Britons (as pearl masters) and Chinese and Japanese (as divers and deckhands) to this pocket of WA was the shells: the mother-of-pearl was shipped out and used to make buttons. Pearls were a bonus.

The town grew as word spread of the booty to be found under its seas, and it became a melting pot of nationalities. By 1900 it was producing 75 per cent of the world's mother-of-pearl. Fleets of pearl luggers would berth at its harbour. It had a population of 4000, 3000 of whom came from Asia.

The inevitable Chinatowns and Shanytowns sprang up, and with them the opium dens and "colourful lifestyles", as one local put it.

All went swimmingly until the 1950s, when the worst happened: plastic buttons. Broome went into a decline. Residents left in their droves. One of the many people I met during my visit told me that during the 70s and 80s Broome had gone from pearl capital to dole capital of Western Australia. Young people came for the weather and lifestyle and that was it.

Enter a modern-day equivalent of the 19th-century pearl master. In the mid-1980s, Lord Alistair McAlpine, treasurer of the Conservative Party during Margaret Thatcher's time as leader, chanced upon Cable Beach.

He loved it so much that he bought it - well, not the beach, but property there, which he developed into the first resort just across the mangroves from that stunning shore. Many others followed and Cable Beach - so named after the first telegraph cable which linked Broome to what is now Indonesia - now has dozens of resorts.

I know, you're thinking Gold Coast. Nothing could be further from that reality. Each resort is enclosed neatly within its own little sanctuary of green, made up of palms, bamboo and frangipani. Nothing imposes on the natural landscape and all are within an easy walk of that stunning expanse of shimmering white sand.

A husband-and-wife pair operate the bus service that does a loop around the resorts and takes visitors into town. Sue, a Kiwi ("I came here and couldn't leave") warned us as we were entering the town that if we saw a sign that stated "pedestrians give way to cars", we should obey it. "This is Broome, the wild west," she said. Well, it wasn't too wild, but I was mindful of the 4WDs hooning down the streets and gave them a wide berth.

Broome has an off-season (summer, the rainy season) and a population of 15,000, which swells to about 50,000 during the winter tourist season. Broome is a satellite to the Kimberley's rich mining industry and the boys and girls come into Broome to play. Not in the same way as the pearlers, mind you, but there's plenty here to keep them occupied.

Remnants of Broome's past remain, so visitors can still wander through Chinatown and up and down alleys like Johnny Chi Lane that may or may not have been the site of the odd opium den.

Now, it houses eateries and stylish shops. Two fully restored pearling luggers are on show in the town, as is a beautifully restored pearler's cottage. At weekends, the Broome Courthouse is home to busy art and craft markets.

And after a day of walking and wondering at the town's charm, there's no better way to end it than with a movie at the world's oldest outdoor picture theatre, Sun Pictures.

Built in 1916 by pearling master Ted Hunter, it screened its first talkie in 1933, Monte Carlo, and is still going strong.

It still has original posters on the walls and its original seats, half in the shade and half in the open, which were segregated until the 1960s (those pearl masters had to keep their workers in their place, didn't they?). I wondered which were better.

Fellow guests at Pinctada told me they chose to sit in the open half. They came back covered in so many mossie bites that they looked like they had chickenpox. I now know the answer to that question.

IF YOU GO

Where to stay: Pinctada Cable Beach Spa Resort, Broome's newest five-star, 72-room boutique resort, is an oasis of calm enclosed in palms, bamboo, oleander and hibiscus trees. It has a world-class day spa and a stylish restaurant offering a signature menu from its award-winning chef.

What to do:

* Broome Sightseeing Tours offers a half-day trip around the town and its surrounds, showcasing its natural, historical and cultural highlights.

* Red Sun Camels offers a camel train ride along Cable Beach at sunset.

* Willie Creek Pearl Farm gives for a unique insight into the modern cultured pearl process.

* Horizontal Falls Adventure Tours has daily flights from Broome to Talbot Bay to experience the spectacular phenomenon of the Horizontal Falls.

Patrice Gaffaney travelled to Broome courtesy of Tourism Western Australia.


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