by Fergus Blakiston
I dig my toes into the sand,
the ocean looks like a thousand diamonds
strewn across a blue blanket…
– Incubus, Wish You Were Here
I fell in love in Broome. It was easy. You simply couldn’t go there without falling in love: if not with someone then just with the place. I can’t tell you why. It just happens. Perhaps it’s the way the setting sun slides into the Indian Ocean, leaving the western sky stained the colour of amethyst and marigolds, that captivates you. Maybe it’s the way the warm waves topple onto the perfect arc of Cable Beach, hypnotizing you into believing anything is possible. It might be the murmur of the wind in the palm trees – as graceful and slender as a pianist’s fingers – that seems to whisper “come and find out.” It could be nostalgia for the town’s roaring heyday as the pearling capital of the world which makes you yearn for romantic adventures which are their own and only reward.
Whatever the reason, there’s something indefinable about Broome that takes hold of you when you’re least expecting it. Broome weaves its magic gently, lulling you insensible with the caress of sea breezes, which make their way into your room at midnight. Broome sidles up to you, like a new friend on a sunlit street, takes you by the hand and leads you into temptation. You want to dive naked into her blue-eyed ocean and lose yourself in her depths.
Broome is full of people who arrived there intending to stay a few days and never left. Every taxi driver in town has a story about how they drifted into Broome from different parts of the world, succumbed to the soft gravitational pull of the place and didn’t move on. Dan Balint, a surfing Sydneysider, came to Broome in search of waves and now owns a tour company – Kimberley Wild – specializing in bush tucker expeditions into the rugged Kimberley region.
The northernmost town on Western Australia’s coast, Broome faces the Indian Ocean like a colonial aunt, wistfully staring out to sea as she remembers her glory days. For Broome was once a wild and tempestuous place, her fortunes founded on pearls. Their mysterious allure brought divers from all over the world to risk their lives collecting oysters from the seabed beneath the waters of Roebuck Bay. Only one oyster in a thousand yielded a pearl. Yet such was the world’s hunger for these perfect, lustrous spheres – and the mother-of-pearl shells they grew in – fortunes were made. As the graveyard on Beach Road filled up with drowned Aboriginal, Chinese, Malaysian and Japanese divers, the coffers of Broome’s pearling companies bulged with money. The pearl barons built grand colonial residences overlooking the ocean; along Dampier Terrace, pearls were traded in tiny shops whose verandahs conjoined into a long, covered boardwalk.
The pearling luggers and all they suggest – flinty-eyed divers, the creak of rigging and the vagrant gypsy life of the sea – are gone. Today, pearls are mostly grown in land-locked artificial pearl farms. But Streeters Jetty, where the luggers once tied up in their hundreds, is still there, jutting into a narrow channel cut through the inscrutable mangrove forests an the fringe of the bay. Nearby, on Dampier Terrace, decaying timber and tin warehouses gaze sightlessly out at the bay. Pearls are still big business in Broome. You can pay thousands of dollars for a pearl brooch at Paspalay Pearls on Carnevon Street or spend less than a hundred on a cultured pearl necklace: no less beautiful because it has a romantic story – whatever you want it to be – attached to it
Erik Heinrich was naked. The Canadian travel writer stood like a Norse god on the pure white sand of Cable Beach, firm of buttock, taut of thigh, his blond hair streaming in the wind, washboard abs gleaming in the afternoon sun. I had met Erik a few days earlier at a bush camp on the savage coast of King Sound, north of Broome. Now we were standing (I was fully clothed, by the way) on the edge of the sea with the glittering beach stretching away towards Gethsaume Point. Offshore, a handful of surfers rode waves which had been born on the fragrant coasts of Africa, gathering their strength over five thousand kilometres of ocean to fall idly at our feet.
“The only word you can use to describe this beach is ‘sassy’,” Erik said. I carefully maintained eye contact to avoid an accidental downward glance at the last turkey in the shop. “I’m writing about the ten best beaches in the world,” he continued, “and this might just be the best of them.”
The relaxed approach to clothing on the beach is just one manifestation of the laid-back attitude the locals call “Broome Casual”. Shorts, t-shirts and reef shoes are the dress code around town. Open-air dining is the norm. At the local movie theatre, Sun Pictures, movie-goers sit outside on deck chairs. Cafes open early and close late. The Shady Lane Café – on the boardwalk between Dampier Terrace and Carnevon Street – is a perfect place to while away a tropic afternoon. The spreading branches of a fig tree form a shady canopy against the sun and you can watch the world go by over the rim of your coffee cup.
Broome’s accommodation options range from cheap and cheerful backpacker’s hostels where the partying never stops to luxury apartments with every appointment a wayfaring lover could wish for. But pride of place among Broom’s lodgings must go to the Cable Beach Club. Built by British construction magnate Lord McAlpine – who was himself captivated by Broom – the resort is styled like a Chinese Imperial palace. Carved dragons and elephants peep from the foliage along winding paths of terracotta; luxury, wood paneled bungalows lie discreetly amid shady groves of palms; twin pools invite you for night swimming as a ghost moon sails overhead. At sunset you can rendezvous at Lord Mac’s, the most perfectly-placed restaurant in Australia. As the sun drifts towards the horizon, you sip cocktails while camels sway languidly along the beach below; cruise yachts, their sails red in the sunset, tack and jibe on the ocean. And in the instant before the sun disappears you feel a little sad at the ending of one perfect day but joyful at the prospect what you might discover about yourself tomorrow.
I was a willing victim. Like the pirates and pearlers and dreamers before me I succumbed eagerly to Broom’s magic. Unable to sleep in the sultry nights – when the air in my room felt as warm and aromatic as a ‘98 Shiraz – I began taking midnight walks down to the beach alone. The sky, as dark and velvety as black sambuca, formed a vast dome over the ocean; champagne bubbles of phosphorescence sparkled on the waves. Broome was bewitching me and I had fallen spellbound, drawn in by her gentle voices and her temperate beauty. I wanted to learn all her secrets; to discover everything about her.
And then one day she was gone. As the aircraft turned like a sea eagle in the sky I looked down on Cable Beach and the waters of Roebuck Bay, scored with the white trails of boat wakes. There are a million stories in Western Australia. Out there, on what could be the edge of the world, anything is possible. You can slip into Broome-time, fall in love and make up your own ending. One thing is certain, you will never be the same again.