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Always a good time to visit Broome, WA

I could have been on the set of the “Creature from the Black Lagoon”.

My head was encased in a huge diving helmet formerly used by the Chinese divers on their pearling expeditions. Whilst the flashes were going off, I reflected on a bygone era before the days of Jacques Cousteau when diving suits were primitive and too often lives were lost by exploited labourers succumbing to “the bends”.

I was on a tour of the Pearl Luggers museum learning about the risks taken in pearling in the late 19th century, an industry for which the township of Broome owes its existence. For this was once the raw north west frontier of Australia. Now Broome is a thriving tourist destination awash with expensive resorts. Modern pearling is not oyster-dangling any more. It is associated with the luxury end of the market, evidenced by the many boutiques in town where more modest folk have to content themselves with gawping in awe at the merchandise, but never daring to break out the hard currency. For most visitors to Broome their only attainable nugget is a mother of pearl bangle.

And despite the high prices, there are no divers risking their lives any more for the pampered rich. Cutting edge technology is the culture of today but this too comes at
a price. Pearl clippers are now used to convey the tourists. There are no strange helmets to wear or coolies being winched overboard- only hats to protect yourself against the blistering sun. A sense of mystery descends as to what goes on but is that not deliberate? After all a luxury item has to remain mysterious to be treasured.

There is nothing elusive about the sun in Broome which shines in a tropical sky 300 days of the year. The wet season is between December and March when the monsoon winds blow from Indonesia, and drenching short-lived downbursts are commonplace. Occasionally cyclones occur although you have to be unlucky to catch one, given that there are so many points of entry on the west coast of Australia where there is a population density of nil. Distances are vast, and isolation is acute. The nearest towns are hundreds of kilometres away. To the east lies the Kimberley region with its photogenic gorges, and once you leave town you travel on a long and dusty road until days later you reach Baz Luhrmann country and El Questro. It is hard to imagine such distances in England where convenience greets you around almost every corner.

The remoteness drives up the prices which are well above what you would find in most other places. You are paying for the huge haulage costs in stocking up the supermarkets and restaurants. So the best money-saving trick is to sample the tropical produce as much as you can. Even the local brewery produces its version of mango beer, and very refreshing it is too.

The legacy from Broome’s pearling past is Chinatown. You can enjoy an atmospheric walk along Carnarvon Street past the corrugated iron buildings and imagine the unsophisticated bustle of the pearl traders setting out their stalls and gambling away their profits in the saloons.

Sun Pictures is the oldest outdoor cinema in the southern hemisphere where you can sit in a deckchair and enjoy an epic movie with sheet lightning raging in the background. On my first visit I watched “the Aviator” with low-flying prop planes from the nearby airstrip providing a real-time special effect.

The sultry air gives rise to the concept of Broome time. There are few slick city-suited individuals rushing around here. In fact it is quite hard to wear a jacket in typical daytime temperatures of 35 degrees so the local uniform is shorts and a T-shirt, even singlets are acceptable. It encourages a laid back off-beat lifestyle which is nowhere more obvious than at the Saturday market where bright “hippy” style clothing can be found for sale on most of the stalls. It is a festival of colour without the music and without the anoraks.

The main tourist mecca is Cable Beach where golden sands stretch almost to infinity. The sea is warm and there is no better therapy than to lie on the very edge and let the waves wash over you. Just beware the range of the tides and make sure that you leave your belongings a long way away!

You have a choice- you can spend upwards of $300 a night at the resort hotel with a swimming pool like any other luxury hotel, or you can indulge down on the beach for free. For me, nothing beats nature which comes in the form of camel-trekking whilst watching the sun set over the sea before it produces a unique tropical orange glow. The ships of the desert come down to the shoreline to treat the tourists and honeymooners to the ultimate experience, not least a sore bottom.

Once a month you can see reflections of the full moon on the sea which are mesmerising in their symmetry. The southern lunar lights you might say, but the locals call it “Stairway to the Moon”. During this time the whole town is “en fete” and the coastal approaches are transformed into viewing galleries. I am told that the mango beer goes down a treat on these occasions.

In the end Broome time takes hold of you in a way far more subliminal than the mystique of its pearling origins can. It is a zillion miles from the rest of the world, an oasis of calm in the high-paced metronome we live in today. You might have to leave this oasis but you will always want to return once you have discovered it.

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