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Broome, WA

Iconic pearl fishing town now a popular holiday resort on the Kimberley coast.

Modern day Broome, which draws tens of thousands of tourists during the winter months, is the brainchild of one man. It was Lord Alistair McAlpine, known affectionately as "Maggie Thatcher's bagman" because he was the Treasurer of the British Tory Party, who turned a sleepy, isolated, pearl fishing town on the far edge of the continent into a personal fiefdom. It was McAlpine who attracted government money to the town and built the famous and luxurious holiday resort at Cable Beach. He built the Cable Beach Resort in a style that echoed the old pearling lugger captain's cottages of the town. Instead of bulldozing and building high rise apartment blocks he bought up the best of the rundown buildings in town (Matso's Store is the most famous example), moved them to ideal locations and simply ensured that their uniqueness was preserved and restored. It is no accident that the architectural style of the Cable Beach resort owes more than a little to the historic Captain Gregory's House which McAlpine bought, relocated and restored. Today McAlpine is barely remembered but the legacy that he created lives on and a few years ago the town was booming (during the mining boom) so much that a block of land could be sold for up to $1 million. Broome is a wonderland for the 300,000 tourists who arrive each year. It is easy to spend a week and not exhaust the attractions in the area. This is an historic pearling town which has metamorphosed into one of the most enjoyable holiday destinations in the country.


Broome is located 2365 km north-east of Perth via Highway One and 2239 km via Newman and the inland route.


Origin of Name

On 27 November, 1883 the Governor of Western Australia, Sir Frederick Napier Broome, declared that there would be "a townsite on the North Western point of Roebuck Bay hereafter to be known and distinguished as Broome." Broome was not driven by ego. He did not name the town after himself. The Western Australian Surveyor–General, John Forrest, had named the town. However it was Broome who proclaimed it. He was, however, less than impressed with the settlement claiming that it was nothing more than three graves and a few itinerants. He didn't realise that it would attract over 300,000 tourists every winter and become one of Australia's most famous holiday resorts.


Things to See and Do

Broome Heritage Trail
There is an excellent Heritage Trail map with descriptions of 12 places of historic interest (all but two are located in a tiny area bounded by Napier Terrace, Dampier Terrace, Short Street and Carnarvon Street) which can be downloaded at http://www.broomedirect.com.au/pdfs/map_chinatown.pdf. It offers an excellent overview of historic Broome and includes the Sun Picture Gardens, the Broome Lockup, the Roebuck Bay Hotel, Streeters Jetty, Matso's Brewery and Captain Gregory's House.

Sam Male Memorial
The origins of the cultured pearl industry are celebrated in the unusual 'Sam Male' Memorial on the corner of Napier Terrace and Carnarvon Street. The memorial was erected in 1977 and depicts the three key people involved in the Kuri Bay pearl cultivation project - T Kuribayashi, Keith Dureau and H Iwaki - standing in front of Lugger B4 - the Sam Male named after Arthur Streeter Male a well known Broome pioneer who died in 1976.

Roebuck Bay Hotel
Established in 1880, the Roebuck Bay Hotel (named after the ship which William Dampier sailed down the coast of Western Australia) is an icon of Broome. It is a typical outback pub with a friendly veranda outside and a charming, "rough around the edges" ambience inside. It is a perfect destination for a hot, Broome day.

Broome's Aboriginal Art at Short Street Gallery
Short Street Gallery sponsors their own indigenous artists and therefore has unique access to art which is made in their workshops by such acclaimed local artists as Weaver Jack, Margaret Baragurra, Jan Billycan and Lydia Balbal. These women are not town Aborigines. They are all Yulparija desert people who, as children, grew up in a culture untouched for 40,000, 50,000 or perhaps even 60,000 years. Their contact with the land, as is the contact with all desert people, was a study in spirituality, emotional commitment and constant battles for survival in an impossibly harsh environment. To survive they needed to know where every water soak was located. They have an understanding of landscape which is so deep they actually paint their world with the eye of an aviator and they have an understanding of the uses of every piece of bush tucker and every edible animal in their harsh domain. They are a living embodiment of what "love of country" actually means to indigenous people and so their paintings are not abstract but rather clear and tangible expressions of salt lakes, sand dunes, soaks, tracks, animals and sacred sites. They left the Great Sandy Desert as recently as the 1960s and 1970s when droughts forced them to the edge of starvation. When they arrived in the huge pastoral landholdings of the Kimberley many of them had never seen white people. Lydia Balbal was the last to come out. Her first contact with Europeans was as recent as 1974. Now they live on the coast at Bidyadanga which lies 200 km to the south of Broome in saltwater (Karajarri) country. If you want to understand the true meaning of “spirit of place” and the deep, deep connection Aborigines have with the land, then the DVD Desert Heart (it is available at the Short Street Gallery) – tells the story of how, after 40 years, Weaver Jack and her friends made a very emotional return to the country of their ancestors. Their paintings, even though they are now long removed from their desert homeland, are always of the landscape of their childhood. The paintings, with their bright acrylics, seem to echo the blues of the clear desert skies and reds, greens and whites which are the colours of the Great Sandy Desert. They draw maps of waterholes and they re-create the landscapes, contours, myths and stories of their desert lands.

Broome Historical Museum
Located at the end of Saville Street and open from 10.00 am - 4.00 pm Monday to Friday and 10.00 am - 1.00 pm on Saturday and Sunday from June to September and from 10.00 am - 1.00 pm from October to May, the  Broome Historical Museum has exhibits relating the town's past including the Pearling Industry, Domestic Life in Broome, Cyclones, the Meat Works Industry, Aboriginal artefacts, the Norwest Echo printing press, telecommunications and Broome's One Day War. For more information check out http://www.broomemuseum.org.au. The museum is located in the general store owned by Newman Goldstein & Co and built in the late 1890s. It was the local Customs building from 1910-1979 and was opened as the museum in 1981.

Sun Picture Gardens
Sun Picture Gardens proudly boasts that it is the oldest open air cinema in the world. It is a reasonable claim. It opened at 27 Carnarvon Street in 1916 and showed silent movies until 1933. It still operates and sitting out under the stars (or in the rain during the wet season) is a unique and unusual way to spend an evening in Broome. The building was constructed in the early 1900s by the Yamsaki Family and was used initially as an Asian emporium. There is a detailed history (and a list of the current films that are being shown) at http://www.broomemovies.com.au/history.html.

Streeter Jetty
The jetty was named after Edwin William Streeter, the owner of the adjacent land and operator of the business that used the jetty. It was built in the late 1880s and was used to moor pearling luggers. The jetty was thought to have been rebuilt in 1946 and reconstructed in 1966, but deteriorated due to lack of maintenance. Following extensive lobbying in 1998 the Shire of Broome purchased it. It is historically significant because it was used by pearling luggers to offload their pearl shells and to load supplies. It was still being used as recently as 1991. The huge tides at Broome mean that at very low tides it appears to be a jetty to nowhere and yet it is completely under water during King tides.

Matso's Brewery
Located at 60 Hamersley Street, Matso's Brewery is a cafe, restaurant, microbrewery and bar which has achieved fame for its unique beers including its justifiably famous Mango Cider, Chilli Beer, alcoholic Ginger Beer and Lychee Beer. The history of the building is the history of Broome. It was built in 1910 and opened as the Union Bank of Australia. In the late 1940s it was purchased by Streeter and Male and relocated to the corner of Anne and Walcott Streets where it became a general store owned by the Matsumoto family, thus Matso's Store. It was purchased by Lord McAlpine who moved it to its present location in Hamersley Street where, in 1997, it was turned into a cafe, microbrewery and art gallery. You can learn more about the brewery and its history at https://www.matsos.com.au/about-us.

Captain Gregory’s House
Captain Gregory’s House, is located on the corner of Carnarvon and Hamersley Streets  and is now occupied by the Monsoon Gallery. It was originally built around 1915 and is a fine example of Broome-style architecture of the period. The central block of rooms open onto the wide veranda which is enclosed and surrounds the house. It is constructed of jarrah with pressed metal ceilings. Captain Gregory established a fleet of pearling luggers and in the 1920’s gained a licence to cultivate pearls. The house was purchased by Lord McAlpine and is one of the finest examples of his determination to restore the important buildings in the town.

Japanese Cemetery
The Japanese Cemetery, which is located on Port Drive near Cable Beach, is the largest Japanese cemetery in Australia. It dates back to the early pearling days with the first grave being constructed in 1896. Tragically hundreds of young Japanese divers died either from drowning or from the dreaded bends (divers paralysis). Not surprisingly all the inscriptions are in Japanese. There is a stone obelisk which recalls the sailors and divers who were drowned at sea in the 1908 cyclone. Cyclones in 1887 and 1935 caused the deaths of at least 140 men. The cemetery has the graves of 33 men who died of divers paralysis in 1914 alone giving an idea of just how deadly pearl diving was. There are 707 graves (919 people) with most of them having unusual headstones made from coloured beach rocks.

The Pindan soils
In Australia red soil indicates deposits of iron in the area. At Gantheaume Point, and on the surrounding headland, there is some of the richest red sand/soil in the country. The locals call this "pindan". Look for pindan next to the sea you observe a striking effect - literally red (the pindan), white (the sands) and blue (the Indian Ocean).

Cable Beach Resort
The legend is wonderful. It is said that Lord McAlpine, having fallen in love with Broome, decided to build a luxury resort and purchased the land on a contract drawn up and signed on the back of a beer coaster in the Roebuck Bay Hotel. The resort, which initially cost $55 million, was opened in 1988. Cable Beach Resort with its manicured lawns, oriental architecture, and feeling of discreet opulence is an example of a rich man's fantasy. It was sold to Hawaiian Pty Ltd, a Perth Company, in 1995. In 2000, after the resort had been badly damaged by Cyclone Rosita, it had a further $40 million spent on it. Today it is a popular tourist resort fronting onto Cable Beach (the sunsets from the Sunset Bar are particularly impressive) and Cable Beach is reputedly the most beautiful beach in Western Australia. If any beach can realistically claim that honour. For more information check out http://cablebeachclub.com.


Other Attractions in the Area

Camels on the Beach
Camel rides on Cable Beach are probably Broome’s most photographed tourist activity, and perhaps its most pointless. It’s a sedate and fairly short ‘‘adventure’’, timed so riders can watch the sun sink over the Indian Ocean and photographers can snap those ubiquitous shots. The camels are led in single file for about a kilometre from a point just north of Cable Beach Resort, then brought back again. There are three operators running identical experiences.

Staircase to the Moon
Between March and October, on an average of three times a month, the remarkably beautiful natural phenomenon named "Staircase to the Moon" occurs. The phenomenon is created when a full moon shines on the exposed mudflats at very low tide. The result is an illusion which looks like stairs reaching to the moon. It can be observed at Onslow, Dampier, Point Samson, Hearson Cove, Cossack, Port Hedland and Broome. Check out http://www.visitbroome.com.au/discover/facts-figures/staircase-to-the-moon for dates and times.

Willie Creek Pearl Farm and Cable Beach Helicopter Rides
Willie Creek Pearl Farm is located 30 km north of Broome and offers a unique opportunity to have the entire modern pearling process explained using actual silver and gold lipped oysters (Pinctada maxima) and offering such fascinating snippets of information as "natural pearls only occur in one oyster in 20,000" and "the irritant has to be inserted into the oyster's gonads to produce a pearl".
In recent years the "cultured pearl" industry, famously patented and popularised by Kokichi Mikimoto, has been so refined and sophisticated that the huge cultured pearls produced by Willie Creek Pearls (the oyster shells can weigh up to 5 kg and be 30 cm in diameter) are nurtured on a daily basis – divers turn them over each day so that a near-perfect pearl is produced every time. The result is hugely valuable flawless pearls. Willie Creek is located at the northern end of Cable Beach and one of the great additional attractions is a return journey by helicopter down the 23 km length of Cable Beach then over the port, Gantheaume Point and the old town with clear aerial views of the Roebuck Bay Hotel and the old pearl luggers. To see Cable Beach, which is so flat and hard that at low tide it can be driven by enthusiastic off-roaders, and to see Cable Beach Resort, is to be reminded of the beauty and affluence of the entire region. Check out http://www.williecreekpearls.com.au/ for details of the tours of the farm.

Malcolm Douglas Wilderness Wildlife Park
Previously known as the Broome Crocodile Park, this interesting operation (owned and operated until his death in 2010 by the noted crocodile hunter and TV documentary maker, Malcolm Douglas) is located 16 km north of Broome on the Broome Highway. It is open from 2.00 pm - 5.00 pm daily with crocodile feeding time being 3.00 pm. The idea of Malcolm Douglas, it was originally established as a research station and a place where the public could be educated about the dangers of crocodiles. The crocodiles in the park are predominantly 'problem'  animals which have been transported from all over northern Western Australia. Today it reaches beyond crocodiles (although you will never see so many of the creatures in a limited space) and includes very healthy dingoes, kangaroos, euros, wallabies, jabirus, emus, cassowaries, snakes and lizards. Check out http://www.malcolmdouglas.com.au/wildernesspark.html for more details. Tel: (08) 9193 6580.

The Lurujarri Heritage Trail
This is a unique Aboriginal experience allowing visitors who explore the trail to learn about Aboriginal Law, the Song Cycle and the Mythology of the Dreamtime and to see the land to the north of Broome through local Aboriginal eyes. It follows a traditional Aboriginal song cycle and follows the coast for 72 km from Minarriny (Coulomb Point) to Minyirr (Gantheaume Point). It can be accessed at different points with walks involving short distances of, at the longest, 17 km. A very detailed brochure which provides details of the stories and the specific locations can be downloaded at http://www.broomedirect.com.au/pdfs/Lurujarri_Heritage_Trail.pdf.

The Horizontal Falls
The Horizontal Falls are tidal waterfalls created by narrow channels in the McLarty Ranges and a tidal range which can reach 13 metres. The location is Talbot Bay which is surrounded by steep cliffs. There is no road access. Only boats and seaplanes can reach Talbot Bay where the tidal range is typically around 8-9 metres and which, during the summer king tides, reaches a huge 13 metres. The Indian Ocean is separated from the bay by two narrow, rugged cliffs where sheer iron-red outcrops which rise 150-200 metres. The cliffs are cut by two narrow gorges. When the tide is turning these two gorges - one is about 10 m wide and the other is about 24 m wide - look like wild rivers as the tide rushes in and out. The rush of water which is like rapids is not produced by water racing downstream. This is water falling like a waterfall. It is water produced by the ebb and flow of some of the planet's largest tides and the water in the gorges is up to thirty metres deep. It has been claimed that the amount of water which flows through the gorges during a King Tide is equal to the water in Sydney Harbour.

Riding the Falls
The morning "adventure" is typical of the experience. Passengers are collected from their hotels at 5.30 am, taken to Broome Airport where ten people (that is all the plane holds), board a seaplane at 6.05 am. The flight, mostly over the scrubby, desert land north of Broome, takes 65 minutes. Before landing the pilot makes multiple passes over the falls so passengers have a good idea of the terrain and the phenomenon. The seaplane lands on Talbot Bay and moors beside the houseboat. Safety jackets are donned and the ten passengers board a high speed Jet Stream boat which is powered by two 250 hp engines and is capable of speeds up to 60 knots (110 km/hr). The boat is constructed with two rows of seats that are more like saddles or gym vaulting horses. You hold on to a metal bar at the front and dig your knees hard into the sides to gain a firm grip. The experience is like running the rapids on a particularly violent river with the water boiling and bubbling as it breaks from what appears to be a mirror-like lake and cascades into Talbot Bay. The total experience lasts about thirty minutes - but it is unique. After running the falls the Jet Stream boat returns to the pontoon where breakfast is served both to humans and to sharks. There is a viewing of the sharks and then a short boat trip up Talbot Bay where the near vertical bedding, which was once part of a mighty mountain uplift, has been reduced over 350 million years to gnarled and twisted bedding. At 9.40 am the seaplane departs for Broome (the flight takes 90 minutes) via the ranges of the area, Cape Leveque with its dramatic red cliffs, and the 20 km long Cable Beach. It is a rare opportunity to see the coast of the Kimberley far from any tourist development. For more information check out https://www.aussietowns.com.au/town/horizontal-falls-wa.



* Prior to the arrival of Europeans the coastal area around Broome was home to the Yawuru people.

* In 1688 a Captain Read sailed down the coast of the Kimberley in the Cygnet. One of the crew was William Dampier who, when he returned to England, wrote A New Voyage Round the World.

* Dampier returned to the area in September, 1699 as master of the Roebuck. The names Roebuck Bay Hotel, Roebuck Bay and Dampier Terrace all honour Dampier's involvement with the area. He landed somewhere in the area to replenish his water supplies and to capture an Aborigine. He found no water and the Aborigine he captured resisted and was shot.

* In 1801 the French explorer, Nicolas Baudin, named Gantheaume Point. His investigation of the area was so cursory that he saw the red point through his telescope, thought it was separated from the mainland, and named it Gantheaume Island.

* The explorer Phillip Parker King passed along the coastline in August 1821, noted Baudin's error he renamed Gantheaume Island. King also named the bay Roebuck after Dampier's ship.

* In 1837 George Gray and John Stokes explored the eastern coast of King Sound naming the Fitzroy River after Captain Robert Fitzroy R. N. and naming Stokes Bay.

* The first settlement of the Broome area was a brief attempt at grazing sheep in the 1860s.

* In the 1870s temporary pearling facilities were established at Roebuck Bay.

* It wasn't until 1879 that Europeans began to settle the area. That year the explorer Alexander Forrest explored the district and sent back glowing reports of the area around Derby.

* On 27 November, 1883 the Governor of Western Australia, Sir Frederick Napier Broome, announced that there would be "a Townsite on the North Western point of Roebuck Bay hereafter to be known and distinguished as Broome."

* Broome at this time was nothing more than a few pearlers, some pearling luggers, a few shanties and some local Aborigines.

* In 1888 a visitor to the port described it as: "The only water was a native well ... The mangrove swamps were full of mosquitoes, and high up on the sandhills a few struggling camps were pitched."

* In 1890 the submarine telegraph cable, which had been connected to Darwin, was re-routed through Broome because of volcanic activity in the Arafura Sea. The Court House (previously the Cable House), located on the corner of Hamersley and Frederick streets, was built at this time as an office for the telegraphists.

* The firm of Streeters set up a store trading in pearls and mother of pearl shell and built the famous Roebuck Bay Hotel.

* The port attracted Malays, Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, Europeans and Aborigines.

* By 1887 the Broome pearling fleet was using diving apparatus made from canvas suits, copper helmets and boots, and rubber air–hoses.

* By the 1910s Broome was a booming pearl fishing town. Before World War 1 there were 403 luggers operated out of the port. It was during this time it gained a reputation as wild and unruly. One old pearler recalled: "Broome in its early days was probably the most unique town in Australia. It was an affluent, sinful and tolerant community, in which the Clergy’s frequent references to Sodom and Gomorrah were regarded as appropriate tributes to civic progress, rather than warnings of future divine retribution."

* During the cyclone season there were over 3,000 Asian divers living in the town and Chinatown was known for its gaming houses, pubs, eating houses and brothels.

* The economy of the town collapsed with the outbreak of war in 1914. The pearls and pearl shells could not be paid for and the warehouses in the town lay idle for the duration of the war.

* The famous Sun Picture Garden opened on 9 December, 1916.

* By the 1930s there were no white pearl fishers and the industry had been taken over by Japanese crews.

* By 1939 there were only 50 luggers operating in the waters around Broome and the pearl industry was severely depressed.

* The importance of the Japanese to Broome (they actually outnumbered Australians in 1941) was highlighted by World War 11. The entire Japanese population of Broome was interned thus crippling the already depressed pearl industry.

* In 1942, with the Japanese threatening the northern coastline of Australia, a major evacuation of the town began. As the women and children left American and Australian servicemen arrived.

* On 3 March 1942 Broome was attacked by nine Japanese Zero fighters which destroyed 16 flying boats (which had brought Dutch refugees from Timor and Java) and 7 aircraft on Broome airstrip. It has been estimated that 70 people were killed in the raid. A second Japanese raid occurred on 20 March 1942.

* By 1956 a cultured pearl consortium had been established in Broome.

* By the 1980s cultured pearls were generating over $50 million per annum for the town.

* In 1989 Sun Pictures was officially registered on the National Estate.


Visitor Information

Broome Visitor Centre, 1 Hamersley Street, tel: (08) 9195 2200. Open 8.30 am - 4.30 pm.


Useful Websites

There is a very useful local website - Broome Direct - http://www.broomedirect.com.au - which has extensive details about Broome's tours, camel rides, scenic flights, cruises, restaurants and accommodation. The town's official site is http://www.visitbroome.com.au.

Got something to add?

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2 suggestions
  • Congratulations on your facebook posts. I read them with great interest usually, especially if the location is somewhere I have visited. I am sometimes tempted to make corrections….I am so observant it borders on a picky obsesssion…..& I say that with tongue in cheek so please take it in the jovial context that it is meant.

    You obviously do a huge amount of research & I am not sure how long ago this piece was written.

    I work at the Visitors Centre in Broome & have done so since we stopped in Broome on our travels around Australia 5 years ago. Broome got under our skin & so we returned to live here. There have been a few changes since you wrote this very comprehensive report on Broome so here are a couple of updates that may be helpful.

    Sobranes Gallery now resides in old Captain Gregorys cottage. Monsoon Gallery no longer exists & hasnt been there for at least 6 or 7 years.
    The Chinatown revitalisation project has been in progress with huge modernisations & improvements since a big government grant & has seen the memorials & statues you mention relocated & the only Pearl Lugger on display is located at the Willie Creek Pearl Luggers Museum on the corner or Dampier & Napier Tces.

    There has also been huge progressive changes to the Horizontal Falls operation that you mention with several seaplanes visiting daily to moor at the Horizontal Hotel. These seaplanes are Cessna Caravans & carry 13 passengers each. The purpose built boats carry 26 pax ie. 2 plane loads & are no longer saddle type seats, the gaps are 7.5m & 20m
    https://horizontalfallsadventures.com.au/ this link may clarify. There are also several other operators that visit the horizontal falls these days.

    Once again, my intention is not to criticize but to offer helpful suggestions.

    Julie Coller
  • What is the population of Broome?