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Broome, Bungle Bungles and Sharing Bread Rolls With Crocs
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It is not hard to understand why General Frederick Napier Broome, the Governor of Western Australia, was unimpressed with the remote settlement named after him, and indeed why, in 1885, he asked if it might be called something else.
But little did he know that the one-horse town of Broome, in Western Australia's northernmost region, the Kimberley – itself named after the first Earl of Kimberley, Britain's Secretary of State for the Colonies in the 1870s – would one day become the nation's pearling capital, and a haven for 21st Century tourists.
Broome, on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert, is still a long, long way off the beaten track – and has only two seasons, the barely tolerable 'Wet' and the more temperate 'Dry'. But there are reasons aplenty to visit.
One is a naturist beach, Australia's longest, which I resisted, despite being delighted to find that its northern extremity was a stream called Willie Creek. Broome is also home to Linneys, the jewellery chain whose pearls have adorned Michelle Obama, Jerry Hall and, inevitably, Kylie Minogue.
Kylie, I found, is to Australia what Mary, Queen of Scots is to Scotland. It is nigh-on impossible to find a big old Scottish house that does not boast of the ill-fated Queen having visited, and the same appears to be true, Kylie-wise, of every swanky hotel and boutique in Australia.
But then anyone who goes to Broome should visit Linneys, if only to spurn the advances of the charming sales team, and that goes for men and women alike. There is a campaign in Australia to market pearls for men, mostly as black neoprene necklaces sporting a single jewel. The swimming colossus Ian Thorpe used to front it – but if I'd phoned home to say I'd bought myself a pearl necklace, my family would be laughing still.
Jock was our guide at the Pearl Luggers museum and gave us a riveting lesson in the history of the pearling industry, which began in the 1860s when white settlers recognised the desirability of the iridescent lining of oyster shells: mother-of-pearl.
Soon, it was used in Europe and America to make buttons, and pearling masters became the wealthiest men in the region. As they prospered, so did Broome. It was the town built on buttons.
It was also built on misery. Aborigines were used as unpaid divers, and if they failed to bring oysters to the surface they had at least to bring up a handful of sand, to prove they had trawled the ocean bed. If not, they were beaten, sometimes to within an inch of their lives. Moreover, as soon as the skippers of pearl luggers realised that pregnant Aboriginal women could hold their breath for longer than most of their menfolk, they too were sent overboard.
Gradually, however, Japanese immigrants took over from native Australians as divers, and by 1913 half of Broome's population was Japanese.
The pearling industry in Broome would be convulsed by two events. One was the Second World War, when the Japanese divers were sent to internment camps. But before that, the invention of plastic destroyed the market for mother-of-pearl.
Attention switched to cultured pearls and pearl farms sprang up, capitalising on the fact that maxima pinctada oysters thrived in the area's sub-tropical waters. Among the farms was Kuri Bay, more than an hour's flight north of Broome, which was established in 1956 by Japanese pearlers.
Our flight to Kuri Bay, the first leg of our so-called air safari along the Kimberley's 'aerial highway', offered a perfect view of the region's spectacular coastline.
Thousands of miles of outback make dramatic contact with the Indian Ocean in the form of hundreds of glorious coves, beaches and islands, hardly any of which have ever felt human footfall. It is difficult to come to terms with the mind-boggling remoteness of Kuri Bay.
The nearest settlement, Derby (population 2,000), is 135 miles away. Once or twice a year, a couple who run an isolated river station 190 miles north call in on the pretext of having run out of some food or other. Last time it was onions. But it quickly becomes clear that what they have really come for is conversation.
A working pearl farm until December last year, Kuri Bay has been converted into a smart hotel. Yet although the old staff quarters have been stylishly converted for paying guests, there lingered a sense that, like the pearlers who once slept in these rooms, I was, for the duration of my stay, a proper frontiersman.
Even a temporary frontiersman, though, needs basic survival skills. John, a rugged, engaging Queenslander who manages the place with Ben, a similarly rugged Kiwi, welcomed us with the warning that 'a whole plethora of dangerous wildlife lives just off the end of that jetty'.
The only practical way to arrive at Kuri Bay is by seaplane, which would have felt like an adventure even if the boat that met us hadn't been surrounded by seven or eight sharks. Yet it wasn't those sizeable – but harmless – tawny nurse sharks to which he referred. He meant the bay's saltwater crocodiles, the box jellyfish with tentacles up to 13ft long and the 'friendly pythons'.
Despite all that, and the sporadic nighttime howl of the dingoes, the wildlife offers far more reasons to visit than not. We saw and heard a marvellous array of birds, but were a month or two too early for Kuri Bay's most astonishing spectacle.
The hotel overlooks Camden Sound, one of the world's biggest calving grounds for humpback whales. Some 20,000 make their way there from the Antarctic every August and September. The human migration from the UK, meanwhile, has become easier now that Singapore Airlines, with its subsidiary Silk Air, has started a regular London-Darwin service.
Darwin is the nearest city to the Kimberley, but of course 'near' is a relative term. Our own next flight on the aerial highway – which involves visiting a series of remote airstrips and the odd landing on water – took us east. We followed the 400-milelong Gibb River Road (on which we spotted just two trucks... it's no place to run out of petrol) to El Questro, a vast 'wilderness park' of more than a million acres. That's slightly bigger than Essex.
We stayed in The Homestead, El Questro's five-star hotel, in a stunning clifftop location overlooking the Chamberlain river. Naturally, Kylie had been before us, although she cleverly wrong-footed the paparazzi – one of whom had checked in to The Homestead before her – by staying at the park's more humble Emma Gorge campsite. He didn't set eyes or lens on her for four days and ended up with a whopping bill, so three cheers for Kylie, although she missed a treat.
One of the more memorable dinners of my life unfolded at The Homestead, on a floodlit terrace high above the milky-green water, from which our riotously camp waiter threw bread rolls into the river for the archerfish, freshwater crocodiles and a splendid little flotilla of turtles.
It was all too bizarre, and too enjoyable, for words. It was also an evening notable for a wonderful main course of barramundi and chilli crab. The chef was a Yorkshireman, and our similarly fine chef at Kuri Bay had been Irish... presumably all the decent Australian chefs are working in London.
I could have stayed happily within the boundaries of The Homestead, but this remarkable wilderness demanded some outward-bounding, so the next morning I hiked up El Questro Gorge accompanied by a guide and a solitary, screeching, sulphur- crested cockatoo.
When scientists first tested the water in the park's three gorges, they thought their equipment was faulty. It is purer than bottled water, and a sign – 'Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints' – made clear the commitment to keeping it that way.
Respect for the surroundings, even reverence, felt entirely appropriate. The gorge's sandstone walls are estimated to be 1.8 billion years old. There are no fossils, because this rock – which is among the oldest in the world – predates life as we know it.
Somehow the Kimberley evokes a sense not just of history but of prehistory. And geography too. Later, I frolicked at Zebedee Springs, a series of natural hot pools fed from a fault deep in the Earth that runs all the way from Papua New Guinea.
The Kimberley – where fewer than 50,000 people live in an area twice the size of Germany – is one of the least densely populated regions on the planet, and one of the least tampered with. Yet where humankind has made a lasting impact, it is as spectacular as the natural phenomena.
On the next leg of our air safari we flew over the man-made Lake Argyle, created in the early Seventies and covering almost 400 square miles. Even if it wasn't home to some 30,000 crocodiles, you wouldn't want to swim it.
We were heading for the Bungle Bungles, a rockscape of weird grey and orange-banded sandstone domes. Our guide explained the complicated geological reasons for the orange and grey – something to do with iron oxide.
But I was too busy processing the jaw-dropping information that the Bungles were 'discovered' less than 30 years ago. A TV crew shooting The Wonders Of Western Australia in 1983 were in a hotel bar in a small outback town when a helicopter pilot ambled over and mentioned the strange rock formation he'd seen while mustering cattle. Had he not done so, then The Wonders Of Western Australia would have aired without WA's most wondrous wonder of all. The Bungles were promptly incorporated into the new Purnululu National Park.
But still their fame is confined almost entirely to the Antipodes. More than 90 per cent of visitors are Australian. Even among Australians, visitor numbers are down, doubtless because of the sheer effort of getting there.
For the British, that effort is greatly intensified, but it could not be more worthwhile. The Bungles took 20 million years to form, and eventually they will be gone, but not for another 20 million years. It's not as though there isn't time to visit.
Tailor Made Travel (0845 456 8050, www.tailor-made.co.uk) offers an eight-day package from £3,323pp including a six-day air safari combining Purnululu National Park and El Questro Wilderness Park, with two nights at Bungle Bungle Wilderness Lodge, two nights at Emma Gorge at El Questro, internal flights, breakfast throughout plus lunch and dinner in the Bungle Bungles, two nights at Cable Beach Club Resort & Spa in Broome plus international flights on Singapore Airlines. The same package with a stay at El Questro Homestead, starts from £4,363pp. Singapore Airlines (0844 800 2380, www.singaporeair.com) operates daily services from Heathrow to Singapore with onward connections to Perth and Darwin. Return fares to Australia start from £1,100, with Club class from £4,455.