Broome is a paradox. It’s all white sand, red dust, gleaming pearls and glaring social challenges. It’s a town which confounds you. An exotic pearling history shimmying alongside a multi-cultural and indigenous mix of people, visitors emerging from dusty, desert drives or sparkling city flights for adventures. Stunning ocean backdrop and harsh, thirsty soil.
I am going to leave the best explanation of Broome to the maestro – Mr Tim Winton.
In his book Dirt Music, Broome is described as having been spoilt by tourism,
It was becoming a suburban outpost with a hokey pearl-diving theme.”
The rub is we are adding to it ourselves as we cruise into town.
Broome was first founded as a Pearling Port in the late 1800’s and is the gateway to the Kimberley’s for many who live, work and visit here.
It’s also the hub of social services for many of the aboriginal communities in this part of Western Australia, the ex-pat home of many others who are attracted to the lifestyle and climate, and it’s the employment centre for those riding on the shirt-tails of industry.
I was last in Broome in the 1970’s, things have changed, as they always do.
Never more so than when Broome seized tourism by the buffalo horns in the 1980’s and decided it was the next big industry. It was helped generously along by English building magnate Lord Alistair McAlpine who invested millions into Broome, restoring buildings and building luxury resorts.
Back to Dirt Music, where the main character Georgie “thought it remarkable that people could produce such a relentlessly ugly town in so gorgeous a setting.”
Now I’m not saying Broome is ugly, in fact the quaint little Chinatown setting, lovely shopfronts and quirky buildings, sparkly new homes, as well as the drinking and dining balconies are so darn appealing. But a main street, a tourist strip and a housing estate does not a town make.
Drive the back streets and government buildings, and another story unfolds.
This is Yawuru Country, where its people are a dilly bag of motivated, business-focussed folk, families watching out for one another and making a good life meaningful, or those trapped in the cycle of alcoholism, violence and other social challenges.
Broome’s people ebb and flow, with international residents who are running away or towards something, it’s a town jostling between cosmopolitan tourism, and laid-back living.
Broome is rough as guts meets polished pearl.”
Like I said, a paradox.
Our time here allowed us a chance to listen to conversations, observe for ourselves how it blends an emerging history and personality together, and to ponder the future.
But we are also tourists, and there’s a postcard selection of things to check out.
We had a week to hang out in Broome, and we got up to this:-
- A stroll around Chinatown. This multicultural melting pot was once filled with bawdy saloons, now it’s all about the pearl showrooms, retail outlets and cafes.
- A look-see at Streeter’s Jetty, the original jetty used by the pearl luggers
- The Canarvon Street lock-up and Boab Tree, the original Police Station, Court House and Inspector’s Station
- Piecing together Broome’s timeline at the Broome Museum
- Dipping our toe into the Indian Ocean – no stingers in sight
- Town Beach – where our visit coincided with the eclipse and we watched the spectacle from the bonnet of our car alongside locals and flying foxes
- A night at the pictures – Sun Picture Theatre – the world’s oldest open-air picture gardens
- Gantheaume Point with its amazing rock formations and its famous Dinosaur footprints, stepping into the footprints of the small carnivorous Theropods and mighty Brachiosaurus with their prints scattered along the rocky edge when the tide is low.
- Waiting for the appearance of the Staircase to the Moon (the Squids were impatient) over Bluey’s Fish ‘n’ Chips back at Town Beach before strolling the night markets
- A sandy sunset drink on the rocks at Cable Beach watching camels and cars jostle for position on the white sand highway that is a 22km stretch of pristine sand fringed by the Indian Ocean
- An ocean-side memorable camel ride on the ‘blue camels’ where the rhythm off the hump matches the rhythm of the waves, and we fell in love with our luscious lipped steeds Malachy and Mustifa
- A visit to Magalba Books to stock up on the Squids’ reading material – it’s a unique indigenous publishing house supporting some terrific writers and illustrators
- We also had plenty of time in the gorgeous Broome Library, one of the best library facilities I’ve come across in our travels with a terrific range of resources. We knocked another Distance Education module out of the way while joining in the Library’s school holiday program.
- Swimming in the pool. There has to be a pool. It was hot and humid. We found a good one at the Cable Beach Caravan Park where we stayed.
These experiences rest alongside all that we see, we are aware that we are somehow contributing to the paradox as well.
I cannot help but find Broome in the rest of Tim Winton’s Dirt Music pages too. Dirt Music is about towns where people seek at any costs to maintain the status quo; to resist outside intervention; to “protect their borders”. It’s about the nouveau riche society of where the millionaire fishermen’s wives look down on the children of their crews, despite the fact that “they’re maybe five years out of the vanpark themselves.”.
Dirt Music is about laws which purportedly protect the environment, but which are driven by monetary values instead. “Fisheries law is about protecting all that export money. To save all those rich bastards from themselves.”
Dirt Music is about how we are gradually spoiling the things which are most beautiful about our country.
Dirt Music is Broome. Broome is a paradox.
As tourists I hope we haven’t over-stayed our welcome.