Surrounding Broome, drifting into town on strong warm gusts, is the red dirt known locally as pindan. Its deep and rich colour paints the landscapes of the south-western Kimberley of Western Australia, each grain of the soil part of a deep and rich story.
“Don’t tread on the pindan,” a guide warns on my first day in town. “You’ll never get the red colour out of your shoes.”
I look down at the white part of my sneakers – or, what used to be the white part – and wish someone had mentioned this to me sooner. But you don’t come here to Broome, one of the most remote towns in Australia, not to tread on the dirt, not to connect to the nature and the culture.
The cultural stories go back millennia, to the start of local Indigenous people living on the land and feeding from the abundance in the oceans. A number of tours will introduce you to this long heritage but one of the most popular is Narlijia Experiences, where Bart Pigram, a Yawuru man, leads visitors through the mangroves to show them why it’s such an important feeding ground.
The mangroves are also the setting for a special Broome phenomenon called the Staircase to the Moon, which occurs only a handful of days each year. When the full moon rises over a low tide, its reflection hits the glistening mud and creates an effect of steps leading up to the glowing orb. It’s a big event in town, with locals and visitors jostling for the best viewing spots (I would suggest the Mangrove Hotel).
Modern Broome grew with the pearling industry, founded here in the 1880s, which originally focused on diving to collect mother of pearl but now revolves around cultured pearls. It’s well worth visiting the Willie Creek Pearl Farm to learn more about the process of creating a pearl, which seems long and technical, although owner Rob Banfield gives the credit elsewhere.
“Broome punches well above its weight,” he tells me. “But not because of us – it’s simply Mother Nature doing what she does.”
Well, Mother Nature – or the pearl farmers themselves, depending on how humble you think Rob is being – certainly brought wealth to Broome. For a rather rugged town, it sure has a lot of jewellery stores along the main street. But what I love is that they’re right across the sizzling tarmac road from the Roebuck Bay Hotel, a pub founded in 1890, that’s just called “The Roey”. You can still sit on an old wooden verandah underneath a corrugated iron roof, where some of the first pearl luggers would’ve drunk, and look at how little and how much has changed.
One of the things those early workers wouldn’t recognise now is Chinatown. Named for the Chinese pearlers who once lived here, the neighbourhood has seen Johnny Chi Lane transform from opium dens and gambling parlours into boutique shops. A current redevelopment of the urban design is also creating a more cosmopolitan nightlife according to Chris Maher, Broome’s resident Elvis impersonator who runs the Salty Plum Social tours with his wife Robyn, blending a few drinks at small bars with stories of the town’s vibrant multicultural history.
“In 2019, when part one of the revitalisation was complete, it brought Chinatown alive at night,” he says. “Whereas, before the revitalisation, you would never come in here.”
Of course, Broome is a gateway to the Kimberley, and a base for adventures to places like Horizontal Falls and up the Dampier Peninsula to Cape Leveque. These trips are a must-do while you’re here, but there are also other options that won’t take a whole day. Drive just out of town to Gantheaume Point, where the red pindan soil meets the turquoise ocean, and rocks at the top of the cliffs, sculpted by the winds, look down on fossilised dinosaur footprints that put our human heritage in perspective.
Or head out with Cam Birch from Broome Whale Watching to explore the rich marine life found in Roebuck Bay. During the migration season, up to 40,000 whales head along the shore – about three times as many as the east coast of Australia. All year round you’ll find snubfin dolphins, as well as dugongs, turtles, and even sea snakes.
“Roebuck Bay has been looked at as the commercial centre of Broome for so long. But the more time you spend out here, the more time we’re discovering the amount of different animals that live in the bay,” he says.
The most famous animals here are probably the camels, brought to explore the country’s centre and now used for rides along the vast Cable Beach at sunset. The experience is fun and the photos are beautiful. I see why it’s used in all the marketing – but there’s so much more, from a craft brewery to art galleries and even World War II history.
The white sand of Cable Beach gets into my shoes, but it doesn’t stain them red like the pindan. I know I was warned the colour of the soil would be hard to get out, but I don’t mind. A trip to Broome is something you carry with you for a while.
WHAT TO DO:
– Learn about the local Indigenous culture on a Narlijia Experiences tour with Bart Pigram
– Take a tour with Salty Plum Social to discover the small bars and heritage of Chinatown
– Head out to see whales and snubfin dolphins with Broome Whale Watching
– Go for a sunset camel ride with Red Sun Camels along Cable Beach
WHERE TO EAT:
– You’ll find excellent Asian fusion at The Aarli, all with an interesting modern twist
– Grab a great meal with your beer tasting at Matso’s Brewery
– For a sunset view with your drinks and meal, Zanders at Cable Beach has prime position
WHERE TO STAY:
– For a relaxed atmosphere on the sunset side of town, there’s the Oaks Cable Beach Resort
– The Mangrove Hotel has views over the mangroves, as well as a busy outside bar and restaurant
– If you’re travelling with a campervan, the Discovery Parks in Broome is right on the water of Roebuck Bay
Michael Turtle was supported by Tourism Australia. You can see more details about things to do in Broome on his Travel Australia Today website.