Those of us who live in the developed world should feel privileged. We have clean water to drink, will only starve if we have substantial mental issues, have health services for all (except if you are in the worlds biggest economy, the US) and a reasonable level of security. We should feel privileged as to have all this still puts us in a world minority.
As I lay in my shaded, brightly coloured hammock, sharing a 6km long white sand beach with no more 15 people, looking out over crystal clear turquoise water, with a cool beer in my hand I felt more than privileged. I knew I am amongst the luckiest people on earth..... though I was a bit pissed off that I had to walk the hundred meters to the bar when my beer ran out.
J and I have been talking about coming to Broome for a long time but have only just made it: it is a long way and not cheap, either to get here or to stay. It became possible due to a mistake by the badly trained guy on the Virgin credit card 2 for 1 desk who gave us a better deal than he should have, and now we are here.
Getting to Broome from Sydney is not the most comfortable trip as it involves international distances on a domestic airline: 5.5 hours to Perth (and 2 time zones) then a two hour flight to Broome on a slightly smaller plane. It is made easier by Virgin Velocity Gold which means lounge access and seats near the front.
I can't say much about Broome yet, other than it is quite small and surrounded by 100s of kilometers of red dirt and scrub. It is bordered by a beautiful blue ocean though.
On arrival, whilst waiting for a cab I noticed a young lady in a shirt with our hotel's name on it (Pinctada, which is a type of Oyster, famous for its pearls) and a clip board, so after a brief chat found ourselves leaving the taxi queue to jump into a Mercedes minibus and to be met at the other end with a bucks fizz and helpful staff.
The hotel is fine: a posh motel really but the rooms are big, the pool quiet and the location good.
Our first nights stay clashed with one of the highlights of the Broome social calendar, the hugely overpriced Opera under the Stars. Luckily we got the inside info that whilst the Opera was very expensive ('too much for most people round here'), the restaurant at the Cable Beach Resort overlooked the venue, so we booked a table. We couldn't see the stage, but as it wasn't 'an opera' but rather a 'operas greatest hits' we only missed fat people in dinner dress standing on a makeshift stage, but we did get to hear them. A nice bonus.
The next day the adventure really began (though I wrote this before I went up to Cape Leveque so didn't really know what an adventure was, but let the phrase stand in its moment). We were off to Eco Beach which is south of Broome, about an hour and a half's drive through bumpy unsealed road. Or 10 minutes on a very small airplane. Hurrah for small airplanes.
Broome Air Service is located in a dusty hanger at the back end of Broome airport and runs about a dozen small planes. The departure lounge is very different but fit for purpose. A small room with a grumpy bloke and a computer on one side, a set of scales in the center and a kitchen on the other side where passengers can help themselves to coffee and water.......even if you weren't a frequent flyer.
Our plane was tiny; just enough room for the pilot, three passengers and our bags (of less than 15kg each). Inflight refreshment was a bottle of water and a Freddo Frog (I thought even that excessive for a 10 min flight).
There are pros and cons to small planes. Pros: lots of fun, they fly so low you can see whales in the sea, if the only engine conks out, they glide much better than a jumbo. Cons: the pilot can look like a 15 year old, the plane is so old and agricultural you feel like you are trusting your life to a 30 year old Oldsmobile, the only engine may well conk out. This time it was a lovely 10 minutes flying out of the very wild west looking Broome, over turquoise water, then landing on a terra-cotta dirt strip cut out of vibrant green bush. We also got to see our resort from the air, sitting between the bush and the golden sand of the beach.
Now that I have landed on a dirt strip I know what a proper gunrunner feels like.
Eco beach is an odd place. The situation is just about perfect: deserted golden beach, beautiful turquoise sea with frolicking whales and sunsets that you just have to take 100 photographs of (here's one where the sun is an inch from the sea and the sky is turning orange, here's one where the sun is 3/4 of an inch from the sea and the sky is a little bit more orange.........etc). The accommodation is quite good: big well built tents with verandah, double beds with reasonable linen, a good sized bathroom and shower and far enough away from other tents so that they can't hear your bathroom noises (makes it very hard to go if you think strangers are listening. Wife is fine. She may not think so). The service is its weak point. It appears that the north of WA is staffed by backpackers. Well meaning middle class youth with a sense of adventure and a bit of get up and go, who must occasionally stop their travels for a month or so to earn some cash to fund further travel. Whilst I do admire them for having adventures so young, they can make very disinterested and unprofessional staff. Especially the poms I am sorry to say. A couple were great but it was obvious that they kept the place going whilst the others stood around chatting and avoiding the gaze of any customer who may want something until you are waving like a drowning man.
It should also be noted that it is hard to see what is eco besides the name. They do recycle their rubbish, use solar energy where possible, collect rain water and grow their own veg, but besides the veg thing I think everyone in these parts do these. They also use patio heaters and fly in ice cream. Very eco. I came to the conclusion that the word eco is used to give the place the excuse to charge a lot of money for a tent that rarely gets serviced.
That aside, it was a great few days of lazing around in hammocks on the beach or on loungers by the pool, reading books and drinking............ whatever we could get our sticky mitts on (though J and I are on the 5:2 diet and have tried to stick to it, so one day involved sitting by the pool and not drinking. That takes all the will power an FT has). I went for a run along the beach one morning, J and I went kayaking down the coast on another morning and one evening we walked along the beach to see a sunset. Other than that it was very lazy. One night we did stay up past 9 and lay on the cool sand, slightly pissed with a bottle of wine and marveled over the stars, of which they were billions. The Milky Way was as clear as I have ever seen it. We felt very insignificant.
After three nights of this bliss it was back on a slightly bigger small plane for the short flight to Broome where we picked up a rental car (a 4x4), some supplies and with the phrase from the lady at the rental place still ringing in our ears - 'the vehicle is not to be taken on unsealed roads'- set off to Cape Leveque at the top of the Dampier Peninsula, 200 or so KM north of Broome, of which about 120 are unsealed.
This was outback Australia like you imagine it. Long straight corrugated red dirt roads with green bush on either side and the few other 'road' users were in big 4x4s with multiple spare wheels, Roo bars and spare fuel who all lifted their index finger from their steering wheel in greeting as they passed. Our 'faux by 4', complete with Budget sticker, looked a little out of place.
We went off the road about half way to visit Beagle Bay, a quite pleasant Aboriginal community with a very distinctive white Catholic church built by early meddlers who felt that what was needed was a big church, rather than education or health.......or just leaving people alone. Worth a visit for no other reason than it is the only clean white thing you will see for a long, long time.
We stayed at Kooljaman at Cape Leveque, found at the end of a very dusty and bumpy 5km of track and the site of a still operating lighthouse. The resort is a series of camp grounds, poshish safari tents and beach shacks set around a sloping peninsula overlooking beaches and sea. Another stunning location and, partly due to the journey here, it felt truly remote. The rocks are a deep red, the sand a very light yellow and the sea, you've guessed it, turquoise. Well it is. our tent was just under the lighthouse and faced north which meant we had the sounds of waves crashing on both the East and West beaches lulling us to sleep.
The rest of the guests obviously travel to these kind of places a lot. Their 4x4s and trailers could probably get up Everest. They have beards and singlets. And big dirty hats. They like to fish and most have boats strapped to their roofs.
At best the service is disinterested but as there are BBQs in each tent and a BYO only policy, interaction is rare. We did interact on a coastal boat tour which is essentially whale watching with a get out clause if the w***s don't turn up. No get out clause required on this trip and we saw 7 humpbacks up close (as close as 20 meters) and a bunch showing off in the distance. They are incredible creatures: big, powerful, prehistoric things which combine speed, grace and muscle in a way not seen since the demise of the USSR gymnastic team. They are reasonably rare and still we kill them. Hurrah for Sea Shepherd!
We also saw a sea snake. Yuk.
The trip got interesting when J saw a bunch of birds fishing. Quick as a flash the skipper had a line in the water and seconds later was wrestling with a Yellow Fin Tuna. Much to J's disgust the Tuna lost and the beautiful creature was dispatched and brought on board. I do think that whale watching trips should be about watching beautiful creatures living in their natural environment and fishing trips should be about killing the little critters for supper, but as I sit here eating the freshest tuna I am likely to ever have I am glad the the lines are occasionally blurred. Of course I do wish J does not have to be there when they are.
Earlier in the day we had a bit of an explore, mostly motivated by my fear of running out of petrol on the way home (we had half a tank left, which considering we were half way through our trip should be fine, but do you really want to risk being stranded in the middle of nowhere in 32c heat to be rescued by a big bloke with a beard and a singlet who will use it as an excuse to be rude about be English). We drove up to a community to Long Arm which had a 24hr service station: a shack with 2 pumps and a very clever credit card swipe thing. And only $2 a litre. We got there behind a man filling up three oil drums (600 litres) and a lively Aboriginal called Bruce who was filling up his boat, as you do. We may have got the last 15 litres, but who cares.
Besides the much needed petrol, I am not sure Long Arm has much to offer. The roads either side of the main drag have signs saying 'Stop! Locals only) and the end of the road boasts a very dodgy looking community store.
The swimming beach at Cape Leveque is wonderful. Practically deserted backed by interesting rocks or sand dunes. And it was safe to swim. No crocs had been seen for ages, the sharks were small and not interested in humans (Hammerheads, Reef etc) and it wasn't stinger season yet. Fantastic.
The trip back to Broome was remarkable for a couple of things. Firstly we were on the road having breakfasted, packed and walked along the beach, all by 8am. Very un FT like. The other thing is that I realized how easy it is to become comfortable driving on dirt roads. Where the tarmac stops and the dirt begins a sign announces the end of the 110kph limit. You can drive as fast as you want, which is as fast as you dare. This means about 60kph to start with and about 80kph 70ks later. On the return journey 110 seemed fine and I wondered what I could have done in a proper off-roader. Much faster coming home than getting out there.
We broke the journey by stopping off at Willys Creak oyster farm, approximately 15km short of Broome. We expected tourist hell but found a well run and interesting place staffed by knowledgable people who shared a slightly wicked sense of humor. Well worth a visit.
Today (7 Sept) was perhaps the highlight of the trip. The intention was to go on a plane trip tour to see the famous Horizontal Falls but our poor organisation meant that the tours were either booked out or s***............... So we hired our own plane! Very rock 'n' roll, but not in a U2 kind of way, more Proclaimers style. We spent 3 hours in a little Cessna 210 with our pilot Andrew, flying up cross country to the falls, then over the Buccaneer Archipelago, then back down the coast. We saw whales (which we got quite low for, and Andrew dropped the wheels to slow us down a little), 2 Dugongs, pods of Dolphins, huge rays gliding through the sea and rather disturbingly, a large shark swimming very close to the beach I had been swimming off the day before. I am sure it was harmless!
Hiring your own plane for three hours is not cheap but also not as expensive as you may think and I tell you what, it is worth every penny.
The end of our trip involved some time in Broome and our conclusion is that it is a great base to go off and explore other places from. There is not much in Broome to excite. It is small and goes to bed at about 9pm, even on a Fri and Sat night. The good places to eat are just ok by a proper cities standards but much more expensive. On the upside, Cable Beach is stunning and there is very interesting history to the place.
The pearl industry has been the driving force for Broome and with it came a large Japanese and Chinese community. Before WWII, the Japanese population outnumbered those of European descent by 9:1. Broome stopped enforcing the very friendly White Australia policy in 1920. For the rest of the country, that came in 1965. Whilst gambling, brothels and opium were never legal, the activities were overlooked and the local government had a hand in the Opium business (which helped the very important pearl divers to deal with the bends). The architecture is an interesting mix of British colonial, Japanese and Chinese with the overwhelming building material being corrugated iron.
A place that brings all this history together is a bar called Matso's which is in a building dating back to 1910 (which is very old by Australian standards) and has been home to a bank, a general store and then a pub. It has a great micro brewery that makes refreshing beers from ginger, lime and mango as well as the normal stuff and has a curry hut in its garden. Service is hit and miss but the booze good, the curry expensive but ok and the walls are covered in history. Well worth a visit, or 2, or 3.
Having stayed in the Pinctada for a couple more nights it has grown on me. The pool is very nice, the rooms cool and the staff very helpful. I now know that the corrugated iron construction that I found so off putting when we arrived is a Broome norm and I can get my mind around that.
Our trip is now coming to an end and the rest of the day will involve boozing by the pool at the Pinctada, perhaps a trip to Matso's then it is off to the airport for an overnight trip back to Sydney......... and from the airport it is straight to work.
It has been another great trip to an interesting place which is so very different from Sydney and the east coast. Backpacker service aside, many people have been helpful and friendly. The most notable thing about a trip here though is just how wild and breathtakingly stunning it is up here. We will be back. I shall have a beard and a singlet, we will have a big nasty 4x4 with loads of wheels, water, winches and fuel. We may even have a proper map and we will probably take a week to get up to Cape Leveque as we bounce from one deserted beach to the next. Something to look forward to.