Climb an outback staircase to the moon

June 1, 2018

We close the door behind us and let the warmth from the  early-morning sun penetrate our white, sun-starved skin. The mangroves are just beyond the road, and the air has a slight sting of salty water. Donning our hats we open the pool-gate and carefully close it behind us, as we start our short walk into the centre of Broome. We have opted to take the 'Cardiac Hill' route, just to get our exercise-starved legs some long overdue motion. We pass the iconic Mangrove Hotel and the venue for today's wedding reception. It stands on top of a sand dune, overlooking the mudflats and mangroves. Next to the hotel is another high sand dune, which we decide to climb.


The reddish sand is hot and I'm glad I put on a pair of 'sensible' shoes. It's not long before I am watching every step I take, due to the extraordinary amount of broken glass littering the dune. It is easy to see that most of the glass originated as beer bottles, being a distinctive green and brown colour. Some glass is opaque, the edges worn and rounded, which indicates it has been there for some time, whilst the snapped beer bottle necks, still with their lids firmly fastened are sharp, jagged and recently broken. Perhaps the drinkers had forgotten their bottle opener. Nonetheless, I feel a sense of outrage at the wanton vandalism of this natural and otherwise pristine public access area. We pick our way to the top of the dune and the view over the mangroves to the water is beautiful. The turquoise water near the horizon is in sharp contrast to the brilliant azure of the sky. Just below the sand dune are the mangrove trees, the tops of which are above the high tide mark. The vista before us is breathtakingly beautiful. I wish there was a park bench up here so I could sit and quietly watch the scenery. The air is still, and the different sounds of birds calling to one another is clearly heard. This could be a wonderful viewing area if not for the environmental destruction below my feet.

Carefully we make our way back to the road and resume our walk to town. 

We turn into Dampier Terrace, which is one of the oldest streets of Broome. It is apparently named after William Dampier, who probably never even came to Broome during his 1688 expedition, but allegedly visited land north of the city. Dating from approximately 1879, when a port was deemed necessary to service the emerging pearling industry, the township of Broome was developed. It was named after a Western Australian governor. Because of its proximity to Malaysia, Indonesia, and Timor, its chequered history included a diverse ethnic population. However, it was not all fun and  games for some ethnic groups, including the local Aboriginal people, many of whom were enslaved to work in the pearling industry.

I walk out along the now very short Streeter Jetty. Once a real pier where pearling luggers were tied, business was held and people massed to welcome in new ships, it is now a boardwalk over the swamp. I can hear the raucous screeches of birds and other wildlife within the living and very noisy mangroves. Looking below, I am delighted to see the little red crabs that emerge from the mud as the tide recedes. I hear little popping noises, but I'm not sure what is making the sound.  I can also hear people's voices, and wonder whether they are hunting for crabs or other sea life that has been left high and dry as the tide ebbs.

The pearl shell, or mother-of-pearl industry started in Broome in the 1880s. Initially the much-sought-after mother-of-pearl was harvested from the shells found naturally in the region. Today, mother-of-pearl is still the largest industry in the town.  Over the years, and with emerging discovery of how pearls are formed in the shell, the industry diversified into formal pearl farming to produce cultured pearls. With Broome's pristine waters, some of the world's most beautiful and valuable pearls have been harvested over the years.

We visit the pearling museum and learn more about the challenges of those brave souls, who launched their luggers into the water, and the divers, who risked their lives every day to collect the oyster shells from the deep water. The Japanese became famous for their skills in diving and collecting pearl shell from the reefs deep within the water and they were well-paid and well-respected for the work they did. There was, however, a high death toll from the bends and other diving-related deaths. The 919 graves in the Japanese cemetery bear testament to the many divers who died. Today, pearl farms are well-established, and the industry is a safe and profitable one. 

I wander inside the Cygnet Pearls, Galwey, and Paspaley stores in the old town and marvel at the beautiful lustre of these gems and wish I had the many thousands of dollars to spare for a set of 'Broome Pearls'. 

As we walk through the streets, I notice that most of the buildings are clad with Colorbond. It is the first time I have seen this used as a building product, as opposed to a roofing material. The newer buildings compliment the older ones built from galvanised iron, which appears to have been the building material of choice during the time Broome was established. The buildings of Broome's town centre had been influenced by the architecture found in fishing villages of China and Japan. The buildings faced directly onto the street and didn't have a front fence or footpath. They were typically one or two storey with a gabled roof, symmetrical facade and small glassless windows. They also included pressed metal window awnings, which were adjustable to provide shade, and which allowed for breezes. These buildings were clad in corrugated iron. Most of the houses were elevated on stumps or stilts to capture cooling breezes, for termite protection, and to safeguard against the regular floods during the wet season. We initially find it difficult to discern which buildings are original and which are more modern.

Of course, the housing estates outside of the town centre are made of Colorbond and are in more modern styles. It is nice to see new and old buildings of the centre of the town are complimentary.  The oldest building along the street is the Sun Picture Garden, which is the oldest outdoor cinema in operation. We have a peek inside. The deck chairs closer to the front are outside in the fresh air. As I stand inside the space, a large aircraft, just taking off from the airport, located very close to the centre of the town, flies directly above me. We promise ourselves that we will revisit the cinema one night before we leave Broome. The deck chairs remind me of the the cinema in Maroochydore, which, although was indoors, also used deck chairs near the front of the house, whilst the more plush seats were towards the back and upstairs in the dress circle. 

The wedding is held at the Our Lady Queen of Peace Cathedral. The word 'Cathedral' conjures up certain images of something large and majestic, so it is a surprise to arrive at a simple, corrugated iron-clad church with a bell tower, seemingly tacked onto the side, near the front door. The original church was built in 1899 with the assistance of the Catholic Philippine pearl divers. The bell tower was completed in 1904. In 1960, the original church required extensive repairs and combined with its small size for the growing community, a new church was built. Perth architect, Stan Costello, designed the new church, which was completed in September, 1963. He incorporated the original bell tower into his design. The  church itself is no architectural masterpiece, except for one feature, also designed by Stan Costello in 1973. The altar is made up of hundreds of carefully matched pearl shells and is a magnificent tribute to the history of the pearling industry in Broome. 

We arrive at the church and settle ourselves just before the bride makes an appearance. As she is walked up the aisle, I have time to look around at the simple, timber-lined church. The Bishop, who we had met yesterday at the cemetery, waits patiently, the pearl-shell altar behind his back. The church and the congregation is blessed by an aboriginal woman, performing a cleansing ceremony, by dipping a eucalypt branch in holy water held in a hand-painted traditional water vessel. The simple ceremony is reflective and joyful, and as they new bride and groom emerge from the church as husband and wife, I feel very privileged to be part of this special wedding. 

The reception is held at the iconic Mangrove Hotel, just a short distance from the church. The hotel looks out over Roebuck Bay, and probably has the best view in Broome, except at sunset, where that accolade can be given to Cable Beach. It is a special time here in Broome's dry season. The wedding date had been organised to coincide with the natural phenomenon referred to as 'The Staircase to the Moon', where the receding tide and the rising moon over the exposed mud flats provide an optical illusion of a staircase reaching for the moon. It appears for only two or three nights per month between April and October. 


At exactly 7:40pm, a didgeridoo begins to play as a huge orange moon slowly rises from below the horizon. For the next twenty minutes, I watch, awestruck, as the reflections expand and the natural rivulets in the darkened mud flats reflect, giving the appearance of steps. There is a hush from everyone, wedding guests and hotel patrons alike, as the moon glides effortlessly in a vertical direction until it reaches the point where the 'staircase' dims and the spectacle is over for another 28 days, until the next full moon is due. 



Our time in Broome is almost over, and in a day or so, we'll begin the long 1800+ kilometre road trip through the Kimberley region of Western Australia to Darwin. Our time here has been busy as we watch the sunset on one beach, experience the moonrise on another. We have seen pearls, so beautiful that it is hard to imagine they have started from a single grain of sand, and we have absorbed ourselves in the multi-faceted history of this fascinating town.





Title Quote: Tourism Australia

Accommodation: Bayside Holiday Apartments, Hammersley St, Broome. WA 6725

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