Tuesday, May 26, 2015

5 Days and Nights in the Kimberley, WA - Day 1: Arrival

Is it ever possible to really know a place? Can you get under its skin after just 5 days? Maybe not, but you can certainly form some strong impressions. These 'place vibrations' can move you as strongly as your connections to your home or your birthplace. They can cause internal seismic shifts deep within you where you thought no fault-lines existed. My first visit to Broome and the Kimberley on the far North-West coast of Australia would be such a trip.....

3.45am  It's a god-forsaken time to have to wake up to catch a plane. But there are so few flights to Broome from Sydney you can't be too choosy. Our bleary-eyed 6am Qantas flight from Mascot isn't even a direct flight - we'll need to fly to Perth first to meet our connection to Broome.

It's a trip that takes you over so many changing landscapes and coastlines...

 ...... from forests, to grazing land....

 .... deserts to oceans .....

that the flight alone reminds you that - 1) Australia is a ridiculously large country and 2) travel is as much about the journey as it is about the destination.

1.30pm Nine and a half hours later we touch down at Broome 'International' airport. (There's a two hour time difference between Sydney and Broome so it's already 3.30pm our time). The title 'International' is now a redundant one. There are no longer any international flights in and out of Broome. The word 'International' refers to a time in the 1980s and 1990s when British politician Lord Alistair McAlpine put this sleepy pearling town on the jetsetter map by building the famed Cable Beach Resort. There were wild parties and pearl festivals. It was a time of decadence. Ansett Airlines had regular direct flights from the East Coast into this tropical paradise that helped drive the local tourism boom. Now Qantas has direct flights only during the dry season between May and September. Temperatures during the wet season can reach into the mid-40s and from all accounts can get very sticky and uncomfortable and therefore deemed a 'non-tourist' time. Even many of the locals tend to flee to cooler climes. Although there are other locals we will meet who love the wet season and romantically describe the rolling tropical thunderstorms that break the stifling heat and the noise of the rain on the tin roofs.

1.40pm As we step out onto the metal stairs leading down to the runway its the air that hits you first - then the heat. We have certainly left winter behind us. You can taste traces of the minerals of the sea and the desert grit with every breath. There are tropical scents too... frangipani, exotic fruit and spice notes. The air is moist and caressing. Occasionally you can feel hints of the dragon breath of that burning sun. But today the weather is perfect.

2.00pm We pick up our Budget hire car and make our way to our first stop. Of course it is a pub.

 Matso's is Broome's famous micro-brewery and watering-hole. The colonial cottage with its swooping tin roof and wide verandahs was relocated to its current spot on Hammersley Street under a grove of frangipani and mango trees.

Matso's beers and ciders have developed a big following throughout the country and are now even stocked at the Dan Murphy chain. Not being beer drinkers we are unfamiliar with this cult brew. Just one sip of their popular mango beer has us converted though. Not too tart with just a subtle hint of fruity mango. Our exhausted bodies sink into our armchairs and our muscles begin to relax.

We're given a 'flight' of beers so we can sample the full Matso's range. There's the sharp thirst-quenching alcoholic Ginger Beer, enticing aromas of the Smokey Bishop, and the Session Ale that's just perfect for those long hot Broome afternoons. And of course we have to pair our beers with a plate of the beer-battered local barramundi. So fresh. It pulls away in soft juicy flakes.

We look out onto the mangroves with flocks of birds roosting in the mid-afternoon heat.

A coastal breeze rustles through the frangipani. We're recalibrating to Broome time.

3.30pm Our energy is draining now. An early start, a little jet lag, the heat and the beer are all taking their toll. We check in to our accommodation for the next two days Pinctada McAlpine House . Lord McAlpine bought this 1920s pearling masters house and restored its typically Broome architecture.

Lord McAlpine lived here for a decade bringing back to life its latticework, verandahs, weatherboard and corrugated iron features.

It's now a boutique hotel with the original rooms of the house all overlooking a central pool fringed with palms.

We're staying in the upstairs library where Lord McAlpine would often retreat to during the suffocating heat of the wet season. The breezes that come through are invigorating.

We've got our second wind back.

Fairy floss clouds scatter across the sky as the famous west sun falls behind the horizon.

5.30pm We grab an early dinner at Aarli bar of the most fragrant mussels and broth, flaky rotis and crispy school prawns.

We could easily slink off to sleep now but Broome has more adventure in store for us....

7.00pm We drive back to McAlpine House to meet up with a tour mini-bus that is taking us to the town's desert outskirts. We're booked in for an evening of stargazing with Greg Quicke's Astro Tours.

photo courtesy of :

It's pitch black until our eyes start adjusting to the dusk light. It's freezing and even our heavy coats can't keep the desert chill out. There are so many night sounds - insects, frogs and other wildlife but there are also wondrous spicy aromas from the native bush and wild flowers. Our senses are somehow heightened in this half light. I want to bottle the air and take it home.
We're directed to an opening in the desert scrub where amateur astronomer Greg Quicke has setup several large professional telescopes so we can see the stars and the planets more clearly. I see Saturn and its rings through a telescope with my naked eye for the first time in my life. It's 1.3 billion kilometres away. Greg explains that because Broome lies just 18 degrees south of the equator we can see the Northern night sky as well as the Southern sky. A rarity. We follow the light from his laser pointer and peer into infinity. There is the Milky Way, The Big Dipper, stars and suns and solar systems making us feel smaller and smaller until we feel we almost don't exist amongst this vastness and ancientness.

10.30pm  Back at McAlpine House we exhaustedly pull off our clothes and collapse into bed, our heads buzzing with psychedelic colours and images.
And that's just Day 1.

Saucy Onion travelled to Broome with the assistance of Tourism WA.
Photos: Mark FitzGerald and Indira Naidoo

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