Pico Iyer Journeys

On the Edge of the Wild

At night, every night, electrical storms broke across the bay, the mangrove trees in front of my little motel shaking in the wind, the clouds above the ocean lit up every few seconds by long, silent blasts of Turner-esque light, as if the heavens were receiving an X-ray. When I stepped out of my little room the next morning, the red-dirt earth all around seemed to thrum with an almost palpable intensity. There was silence everywhere in the empty landscape, and here and there, on the settlement’s stray patches of grass, a few Aboriginals were sitting in circles under trees, or walking along the straight, tropical roads, as displaced as blacks during the days of apartheid in South Africa, the bright white Outlanders of tourists whooshing past them.

My first five minutes in Broome, a remote and eerily powerful little pearling town on the northern coast of Western Australia, I was taking notes outside the Sun Picture Gardens, said to be the oldest outdoors movie house in the world, when I was startled by a shout; “Who are you ?”

I looked over to see an Aboriginal man, less than three feet away from me, staring at me with undisguised rage. I fumbled out an answer, and he looked at me again, with even more hatred in his eyes, and reeled beside me like my shadow as I started to walk down the street, faster and faster, as if to remind me who was the real intruder in the scene.

It was an unsettling moment, but it set the tone for days of the most curious interlude I can remember spending, in a place that unsettled me in every direction, many of them transporting. Soon I was walking past the indigenous population as it huddled beside two overturned shopping carts next to the Tourist Information Center, calling out, “Where’s your umbrella, then?” to every innocent stumbling into the office in search of a map. It felt as if I had fallen into some largely unvisited corner of myself, where everything is more intense in the emptiness all around, and you find yourself walking along an 80-mile beach, completely unpopulated, not sure if you are awake or in a silent dream. “Broome time” is really a form of stepping out of time altogether.

The first thing you will hear when you set foot in Western Australia is that it is one of the most isolated (and therefore wildest and strangest and most elemental) places on the planet. Perth is the loneliest regional capital in the world, more than 1600 miles from the nearest urban settlement, and, as the cliche has it, closer to Singapore than to Sydney. But Broome is far-off–otherworldly–even by Western Australian standards, 2 1/2 hours north of Perth by Boeing 737, somewhere beyond Lake Disappointment and the Great Sandy Desert. The little town itself, with its tropical, corrugated-iron huts, its eccentric drop-outs lounging beneath slowly-turning fans, its sense of having seceded from normality into a province of its own, has something of the flavor of Key West. But this is Key West on the edge of Wyoming–or (since Australia is empty and remote even by the standards of the American West) of Wyoming’s Wyoming.

On a recent trip to Perth, I had a few days free and, pulling out a map, looked for the most visible remote place I could find: Broome. It was Wet season when I arrived, which meant off-season, the 110-degree days ensuring that most shops closed at 3 p.m., when they deigned to open at all (in the peak months of June, July and August–the Australian winter–Broome sees 00 inches of rain a month, and caravans full of tourists; in January and February it sees 00, and emptiness). I knew that the improbable scattering of 14,000 people was home to the world’s richest pearl beds–as well as the launching-pad for the Kimberley wilderness all around–and that it had been settled for a century or more by Japanese, Chinese and Malays, brought here by the treasures hidden inside oysters and the prospect of making their fortunes. But nothing had prepared me for the ramshackle waywardness of this wild, unmonitored place charged with the ancient, slightly spooked presences of Australia’s Empty Quarter. Walking along deserted, straight, straight roads, the wind roaring in my ears, a few beat-up cars and home-made shacks beside me, the ocean a turquoise mirror all around (the local “pindan” red-dirt roads run right into the white sand beaches and blue-green waters), I realized that I had fallen out of Key West and landed up in Easter Island.

These days, Broome is an anthology of the kind of pleasures a visitor might crave if only she knew what to ask for. Cable Beach, on one side of town, is less a beach than a desert, or a sandy expanse, so wide and unpeopled along its 13-mile stretch that the only signs of movement I could see on it, often, were far-off four-wheel-drive vehicles zigzagging merrily across its empty spaces. The whole area is full of quirky flourishes–no mail delivery and gusting winds of 150 miles per hour, a weird effect in the winter months in which the moon on the water creates what seems to be a golden staircase leading up to the heavens, a clock in the most elegant pearl shop in town that is 3 1/2 hours behind (or is it 8 1/2 hours ahead ?). The restaurants and ferny guest-houses are models of an Asian Caucasian style that exults in the fact that the area feels, in its setting and its ways, more like parts of Bali or an island in Thailand than somewhere governed by Perth. Even an unprepossessing four-star motel offers scallop and leak ravioli, twice-baked goat’s cheese souffle and lemon and rosemary roasted quail–and that is just in the appetizer section of the room-service menu!

The sheer oddity of every detail in the town can be explained in part by history. The first Englishman to set foot on Australian soil was a sometime pirate and writer called Sir William Dampier, who arrived on the Kimberely coast in 1688, and published a book A New Voyage Around the World that inspired interest in the area and moved the British Admiralty to send him back to the region in 1699, aboard the HMS Roebuck. By the turn of the 19th century, French explorers were chronicling the almost unimaginable natural wonders of the Western Australia coastline (220 types of reef-building coral, horizontal waterfalls and “pindan poison plants”; 500 mm. of rain in a recent 24-hour span).  Then, in 1883, the largest pearl shell in the world was found off Roebuck Bay, in Broome, the town found itself in gazettes for the first time and people started arriving to find pearls.

By 1901 the population of the settlement consisted of 132 Europeans and 1358 Asians, the Westerners running the pearl trade, the Japanese and Malays and Aboriginals and Koepangers (so named for the Dutch East Indies port of Koepang, from which they came) diving for treasure, often at risk of their lives. The Chinese, assessing the situation, ran the shops (with the result that Broome’s tiny central area is still called Chinatown, and is dominated by the Yuen Ming General Store and Feng Sam’s restaurant). It was a raucous, roguish kind of place in those days, its few inhabited streets crisscrossed with opium dens, brothels and gambling houses, and the “old lock-up”–now a gallery, of course–sporting these days a plaque remembering the police chief who died of sunstroke after trying to mediate a battle between the Japanese and the Koepangers in 1920.

At the turn of the last century, Broome was responsible for 80% of the world’s mother of pearl, and not long thereafter 400 pearling luggers regularly cast off from the waters nearby.  And even though the trade to some extent fell away as two World Wars and the Depression intervened, history never stopped decorating it, as if with its private graffiti. In 1942 Broome was the site of “Western Australia’s Pearl Harbor” when nine Japanese Zero fighters suddenly launched an attack on it, picking off Allied planes. More recently, one of the many wayfarers to stop in Broome and not clamber back up to reality was Lord Alistair McAlpine, from Britain, who so fell under its spell that he bought the Sun Picture Gardens, established the town’s only semi-plush resort and even set up a zoo filled with white rhinos and big cats, their food flown in from around the world every day. (Though now he is in Italy, you can stay in McAlpine’s house, lush with mango trees and crimson-winged parrots, and turned these days into an elegant, if quirky, B and B).

Scroll to top