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When in Broome...

A view of the coast with mud flats  

In Australia’s north-western coastal pearling town of Broome, the Mangrove Hotel’s garden bar is packed with visitors and there is no room near the deck overlooking Roebuck Bay. The excitement is palpable as the sky begins to turn ink blue. In anticipation, the crowd cascades into silence as the swaying branches of frangipani and palm fan the gentle autumn breeze.

A silver line appears on the horizon bathed in a reddish-orange glow. A golden stairway begins to appear as the full moon makes its ascent. Immersed in the spectacle, I am almost oblivious to the photo frenzy ensuing around me. Staircase to the Moon is a natural phenomenon visible from March to November, when the rising full moon, reflecting off the exposed tidal mudflats in the bay, creates this optical illusion. Broome’s natural splendours, as much as its pearling past, are a drawcard with local and international travellers. Each day before dawn breaks, in a mesmerising play of Nature, thousands of bats — black and little red flying fox — fly from the East to roost in the mangroves and tidal mudflats of the bay.

Shorebirds take off

The bay comes alive with the chatter of tens of thousands of shorebirds in their colourful breeding plumage, foraging in preparation of their annual migration to the warmer climes of the northern hemisphere.

Between mid-March and mid-May, they fly to China and as far as Siberia, where they pair, nest, breed and raise their chicks before returning to Broome in the southern spring.

Getting there

    The very first birds to leave Roebuck Bay, a Ramsar wetland site of international significance, are usually the eastern curlews, followed by black-tailed and bar-tailed godwits, greater sand plovers, and the red knots are usually the last to depart.

    This sleepy town and its surrounds are a bird watcher’s paradise with over 325 species of birds, including 55 species of shorebirds.

    When in Broome...

    Cable beach

    The white sands of the 22-kilometre-long Cable Beach, hemmed along the Indian Ocean, is where locals and visitors come to swim in the warm tropical waters, dine at the myriad restaurants and bars, and take a sunrise or sunset camel ride. The waters around Broome are also home to the shy Australian snubfin dolphins, dugongs, green turtles, sea snakes and humpback whales. An estimated 40,000 whales mate and give birth in the Indian Ocean around Broome. An afternoon cruise is a great way to see pods of humpback whales frolicking at close quarters.

    Mother of pearl

    It was in these waters, in the 1870s, that the world’s largest pearl oyster, pinctada maxima, was discovered.

    Today, restored pearling luggers and jewellery showrooms displaying the exquisite Australian South Sea pearls stand testimony to this outback town’s heydays when the oyster’s mother of pearl shells, used for making buttons, cutlery handles and jewellery, reached the faraway markets of London and New York.

    Exempt from the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act, which limited the number of non-Europeans coming into the country, pearl divers from China, Japan, Malaysia and other Asian countries came and settled in Broome. Little wonder, the town centre is called Chinatown, where the pearling sheds, opium dens and noodle houses have been replaced with cafés and restaurants serving diverse cuisines, shops selling souvenirs, home-made soaps and candles, and local produce.

    When in Broome...

    Sun Pictures

    Boutique art and photography galleries are aplenty. One can still relax in a canvas deckchair and watch a film at the oldest operating outdoor cinema in the world, Sun Pictures, which opened in 1916 and recently featured in the musical Bran Nue Dae. It was the place for local gossip and courtships that would often consummate in marriage.

    Dialogues were interrupted by loud barks as patrons’ dogs broke into fights. Not far from the cinema is another Broome landmark, Matso’s family-run café and microbrewery. It serves an array of beers, including mango, lychee and ice-hot chilli beers, complemented with one of the best samosas and local produce fritters.

    Gantheaume Point

    Adjoining Cable beach is the Gantheaume Point beach, where red Pindan cliffs seamlessly merge with the white sandy beach, hugging the aquamarine waters of the ocean.

    At the base of the cliff, embedded in sandstone, are footprints of dinosaurs that once roamed here 120 million years ago. The footprints are visible only at low tides of 2.16 metres, so one has to be content with the plaster replica at the top of the cliff. Nearby, mud crabs swim in the rugged red rock pools near my feet.

    Overhead, an osprey is flying, probably to her nest as the sun begins to set, smearing the sky with every hue from yellow to orange to red. The palette of colours leaves an indelible impression on my mind’s eye.

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    Printable version | May 11, 2021 10:35:31 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/travel/broome-in-northern-australia-has-many-treasures-waiting-to-be-discovered/article23747522.ece

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