Saturday, May 23, 2015Saturday, May 23, 2015
Insider Asia

Remote wonders of western Australia

The Kimberley region of Western Australia holds surprises such as dinosaur footprints and camel rides

Published on Jul 6, 2014 7:27 PM

At an empty beach on Australia's isolated north-west coast, I stepped into a large circle engraved in the rocks, not yet aware that I was inside the footprint of a dinosaur. 

But my strange voyage to the beach had left me ready for surprises.

I had arrived with a small group in a bright yellow  hovercraft, leaving from a bayside dock in the small town of Broome in Western Australia. 

The 12m amphibious vessel had glided down a sandy ramp and onto the calm salty waters before motoring along for about 20 minutes.

The airborne ride was surprisingly smooth. Along the way, a local guide provided a witty history of the town, including its recently soaring real estate.

Finally, we had landed on this isolated beach, which was once an ancient forest.  

Walking up towards a cluster of rocks, the only sign of civilisation was the hovercraft. It stood out on the beach like some machine from the future, at odds with a quiet beach filled with some of the world's best-preserved prehistoric fossils.

After reaching the rocks, our guide pointed to a series of engraved circles up to about 1m in diameter.

He told us to each step into a circle and place a pink cone inside. Stepping back, we could see that the trail of pink cones indicated a series of footsteps and that the circles were the fossilised three-toed foot prints of a large dinosaur.

These, the guide explained, were some of the world's best-preserved sets of dinosaur footprints. Scattered across the coast, they are about 120 million years old. 

After a day or two in Broome, this is the odd sort of experience one comes to expect (tours can be booked with Broome Hovercraft Tours, tel: (61)-891-935-025, A$119, S$139).  

It is a far-flung destination where surprises are commonplace, most easily accessed via a 21/2 hour flight from Perth.

With a population of about 15,000, the town has increasingly become known as a base for exploring the vast beauty of the surrounding Kimberley region. The landscape is empty, untouched and remote. 

I experienced a sense of the remoteness during a day-long "air safari" in a six-seat light plane which hops between various sites.  The plane ride is smooth and involves a spectacular flight over the hundreds - possibly thousands - of small islands along the coast.

The flight continues to Horizontal Falls, a peculiar natural phenomenon in which water gushes horizontally between two gaps in a mountain ridge.  

The larger gap is about 20m wide and looked - from our vantage point in the sky - like a natural sluice carved into the ridge. The tides can vary in strength and - when strongest - produces a heavy trail of froth as it rushes through. 

We then flew on and landed for breakfast at a remote tip of the coast called Cape Leveque and walked through low-lying bushland for about 15 minutes to an isolated beach. The sun was strong and the calm clear water, though warm, was refreshing. 

After a cleansing swim, we again boarded the plane  - which now felt like our own little vehicle - and landed at our final stop, the Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm.

We took a boat tour of the surrounding coast, with its rocky inlets and islands, pristine beaches and occasional sightings of turtles and small sharks. We ended at the country's oldest pearl farm for a viewing of pearls and jewellery in the showroom. 

The tour (operated by Kimberley Aviation, tel: (61)-429-112-407; starting from A$585) had been my first encounter with the landscape of the Kimberley: It is vast, varied and strikingly beautiful.

From a hovercraft ride and a small plane journey, I shifted to another unconventional form of travel. 

Shortly before sunset, I hopped onto the back of a camel for a guided sunset beach walk. The 15 or so camels, which can carry one or two people each, are connected by rope and led by numerous guides who walk alongside. It offer a surprisingly restful ride along the soft sand on the 22km long Cable beach. 

The camels, the surf, the descending red sun and the group of wary tourists are an odd mix, but the ride was strangely peaceful (Red Sun Camels, tel: (61)-891-937-423, starting from A$40). 

This, in a way, resembles Broome itself, an unusual town whose character stems from its fascinating history and unlikely cultural jumble.

After a "pearl rush" which began  in the late 1880s, the tiny isolated port came to provide much of the world's mother of pearl. It attracted crews from across South-east Asia who came to work on the 400 or so pearl luggers, or sailing boats. 

The population of whites was soon outnumbered by the thousands of  Malays, Chinese, Japanese and Filipinos, who mixed freely with the local Aboriginal population. The result was - and remains - a colourful blend of cultures, which is evident throughout the town. 

I met Mr Ahmat Bin Fadal, who arrived in Australia from Singapore in 1962 to work as a pearl diver. 

"Before I left Singapore, my parents said 'just don't go diving'," he said. "But I did end up a diver. It was a very dangerous job. I said I was coming for two years - I stayed for 52."

He recalled how the town's odd assortment of cultures and communities fitted comfortably together.

People congregated at the main pub, The Roebuck Bay Hotel, which still exists, or at the stores and restaurants in Chinatown, which dominates the town centre - an unusual feature for an outback Australian town.

The old days of lugging are long gone. But the region now has a successful cultured pearl industry and the city centre is lined with pearl shops.

There are numerous showrooms with large collections, including the Cygnet Bay Pearls store which claims to have the world's largest fine quality round pearl - a 156g, 22.24mm-diameter white/pink pearl which the owners say is "priceless".

I visited the Pearl Luggers museum, where a young half-Aboriginal, half-Asian guide provided a detailed and fascinating account of the town's history. 

The tour describes the techniques of the Japanese divers famous for their courage and prowess, as well as a candid account of the horrific treatment of the early Aboriginal pearlers.

Pregnant women and small children would be sent to dive down for shells because they could hold their breath for long periods; many died.

The tour ends with a sample of pearl meat, a chewy, fleshy delicacy which tastes slightly like scallops and usually sells for about A$120 a kilogram.

Beyond its pearling history, Broome now has a luxurious resort, Cable Beach Club, a restored outdoor cinema, and cafes and restaurants.

There is also  a popular brewery, Matso's, known for its unusual hand-crafted lagers such as mango beer and chilli beer. 

After a day or two in Broome, a glass of lychee beer almost seems normal. It is a place which seems to abound in its odd assortment of cultures, conveyances, spectacular natural scenery and some oddly flavoured beverages.

Related Links

Background story

Getting there

Singapore Airlines operates four flights daily between Singapore and Perth, with connections to Broome via Virgin Australia. Return fares start from S$1,072 a person (two persons travelling), from now till the end of this month, or S$1,252 from next month.

Jetstar operates daily services between Perth and Singapore, with Qantas flying numerous onward daily services to Broome. Return Economy airfares start from about S$1,100. 

Where to stay

Luxury beachfront resort with villas, suites and deluxe rooms starting from A$395 (twin-share).

Hotel with bay views and rooms ranging from $139 to $414.

Comfortable backpacker and hotel accommodation with dorms from $24 and private rooms from $140.

Where to eat

  • Matso's (60 Hamersley Street, Broome)

A former general store converted into a microbrewery and restaurant. Tasty international menu ranging from hamburgers to Moroccan goat. Reasonable prices, with a three-course meal costing about A$70.

  • Cable Beach Club's Sunset Bar & Grill (Cable Beach Road, Cable Beach)

Spectacular view of the beach with a handy cocktail menu and restaurant. A range of bistro food but steak (about A$40) is the specialty.