Pearls on the peninsula

Janet Hawley discovers turtle eggs, safari tents and a flourishing indigenous trade on the Kimberley coast.

Roma Puertollano, wearing a bright pink singlet, frangipanis in her hair and a beaming smile, stands among giant woks and camp ovens under a sign saying Roma's Chilli Crab Kitchen. Beyond, through the palms, lies a glorious white beach and cerulean sea.

It's not Bali or a Pacific island. This is a new tropical destination to rival them, on the Dampier Peninsula, stretching 200 kilometres north of Broome, the coastal region of the Kimberley in Western Australia's top end. It shares Broome's multicultural history of early explorers, missionaries and pearlers from Japan, Indonesia, China, the Philippines and Malaysia. The result is a wondrous mixed heritage that flavours the lifestyle and attitude of their descendants.

Only 822 people live on the Dampier Peninsula, 84 per cent of whom are indigenous, mostly in small communities or individual homes scattered around the idyllic coastline. About 20 indigenous-run eco-tourism ventures offer a range of spotlessly clean accommodation, from modest shelters and camping sites to upmarket safari tents beside secluded beaches and coves.

Many are run by remarkable characters, like Puertollano at Chile Creek. With her Filipino-Spanish-Aboriginal-English background, she is renowned as a raconteur and cook of spicy Asian recipes. She is also well known for escorting small groups on mud-crabbing tours in the mangrove estuary beside her beach, followed by a cook-up of chilli crab.

If you muck up the tide times for mud-crabbing, as we did, Puertollano keeps other local delicacies on hand for visitors to sample, such as dugong, oysters and turtle eggs. She insists we try turtle eggs she's just collected on the beach and boiled. They're like ping-pong balls made from parchment. "Make a slit in the top and suck them," Puertollano instructs. "The white never sets, no matter how long you cook it. Only the yolk sets." The taste is so rich it feels like you've eaten 10 chook eggs.

We head down to her beach to watch the sunset under a palm-frond pavilion, fitted out with chairs cleverly fashioned from 44-gallon drums and cushions.

Like many places on the Dampier Peninsula, Chile Creek has a variety of accommodation. There are camping sites and bush huts, which share a rustic outdoor kitchen and a cheerful outdoor bathroom, with clam shells for soap holders and shell-framed mirrors. New self-contained safari tents are also available.

We're staying the night at the award-winning Kooljaman at Cape Leveque, on the tip of the Dampier Peninsula. Our guide, Liz Jacks, reckons I should see the best the peninsula has to offer on my first night, then go rustic the following night.

Jacks works for the non-profit Small Business Centre in Broome, helping emerging indigenous entrepreneurs, such as Kath Cox, who is also travelling with us. Kooljaman is jointly owned by the Djarindjin and One Arm Point communities, and it's not hard to see why it has a showcase of awards. Established in the early 1990s and progressively improved, the site is crowned by Cape Leveque lighthouse and red pindan cliffs above white sandy beaches.

Kooljaman has perfected the art of the glamour safari tent for this climate. Tents are erected on timber platforms, with a front veranda to admire the view and a timber kitchen and bathroom at the rear. I'm staying in a zip-up tent with geckos for company but Jacks and Cox are determined to rough it in an open beach hut. Nothing phases Jacks. She was bitten on the ear by a king brown while camping out bush. "My fault," she says. "I was too lazy to put up my mosquito net over my swag that night." Hooray for the Royal Flying Doctor Service, which came to the rescue.

Next morning Jacks and Cox are singing along to the latest Pigram Brothers album as Jacks steers her four-wheel-drive to Lombadina, half an hour away. It's a vibrant community and a sign proudly announces it's a Tidy Towns winner. A resident, Robert Sibosado, greets us. Once a Catholic mission, Lombadina is home to an Aboriginal community of 60 people, who run a number of enterprising businesses, from whale watching and fishing charters to a wood-fired bakery and machinery hire. The old Christ the King Church, evocative of early mission days, is built from local paperbark trees.

As we walk to the beach, Sibosado points out fresh snake tracks on the sandy track. "It's a king brown, " he remarks, "been out hunting for a rat or something to eat last night."

Great. Suppose you have crocodiles here, too? "Nah, only seen one croc all this year but you always keep a lookout," he replies.

We drive a kilometre along the glistening waterfront through deeply rutted sand to see ancient fossilised human footprints. Advertising agencies love this beach for outback fashion shoots and 4WD vehicle commercials. Yet even experienced drivers get bogged here occasionally. "No worries," Sibosado grins. "We charge $60 to tow you out."

We need fuel, so we drive south to Beagle Bay general store, then weave back north again. First we visit the peninsula's other historic mission church, Sacred Heart. French Trappist monks came to Beagle Bay in 1890 but left and were replaced in 1900 by German Pallottine missionaries, who continued to staff the mission for the next 90 years until it was handed over to the Aboriginal community. When World War I broke out the German monks were placed under house arrest at Beagle Bay and a police guard posted at the mission. Nonetheless, rumours circulated in Broome of German brothers re-fuelling U-boats at night in the bay. The missionaries, in a statement of faith, began building a church modelled on a photograph of a German church kept by one of the brothers. Clay bricks were fired in on-site kilns, sand and shells hauled in by oxen carts. Lime was made by burning shells and used as mortar and plaster. The original ceiling was painted dark blue and inlaid with mother-of-pearl shells to replicate the stars and constellations. White ants destroyed it and it was replaced with today's ceiling made from flattened kerosene tins. The ornate altar is decorated with mosaics made from shells and mother of pearl and services are still held here regularly.

Delma Cox, another great peninsular character, has mixed memories of growing up at the Beagle Bay mission. She lives with her husband, Alphonse, by a glorious beach called Gnylmarung, overlooking Beagle Bay. "I have lots of pearling divers in my background," she says. "I'm a mixture of Malay, Chinese, Aboriginal. Alphonse is Italian, Filipino, Scottish, Irish and more too."

Two years ago they built three tourist cabins on their land (BYO linen), with a shared bathroom and kitchen facilities. Visitors are welcome, for a small donation, to help themselves to Delma's mango trees and vegie garden and Alphonse takes guests fishing.

Not far away is Nature's Hideaway at tranquil Middle Lagoon, with beach shacks and self-contained cottages run by Peter and Traci Howard. Many visitors have been returning to holiday here for a decade, Jacks says. "It takes hold of you, once you slow down and start to really relax," she says.

Our next hop north is Pender Bay, where an enterprising couple, Lenny and Jacinta O'Meara, run the Whale Song retreat and cafe at Munget community. Jacinta became known as "the cake lady" as she drove around the peninsula selling her home-baked sand-dune slices (from her grandmother's Dutch recipe). She also sold packs of salad greens and vegetables from her organic garden. Tourists often bought the lot before she'd driven far and the demand inspired Whale Song Cafe, with a small menu and an indigenous art gallery. Sip a home-grown pawpaw and banana smoothie on the cafe veranda and, from July to October, watch the migrating whales breach offshore.

Nearby, Andrew Bowles runs his Goojarr Goonyool Two Moons Whale and Marine Research Base. He has been collecting data on migrating humpback whales for a decade and hosts scientists keen to observe Pender Bay, a whale nursery area.

At One Arm Point, further north, is the Ardyaloon community's aquaculture hatchery, which welcomes visitors. The hatchery breeds thousands of juvenile trochus shells in tanks, to seed the offshore reefs, which the community has the right to harvest. The shells are mostly sold to Italy, for button manufacture, but polished shells and bangles can be bought on site.

Winding inland to Kelk Creek, past giant termite mounds, Deb Sibosado and husband Steve Nicholls offer a different experience in a serene bushland setting. Their cabins and safari tents on platforms are built amid a tall forest of melaleucas and bloodwoods. Sibosado takes visitors on bush walks, explaining the plants used for bush tucker and bush medicine. Walkers return to freshly cooked damper prepared by Nicholls, with bush honey, bush fruit jams and hot tea.

On our last night we stay overnight at Goombaragin Eco Retreat overlooking Pender Bay, run by Kath Cox and her partner Jamie Houston. Their clifftop land has the four vivid colours of the Kimberley: blue sea, white sandy beach, red pindan cliffs and lush green vegetation. We'll be sleeping in a tent, after a barbecue and stories around the campfire. Since our stay, however, new eco tents on timber platforms have been built, with beds and linen.

Around the fire we talk about the natural gas plant proposed on James Price Point, on a wild beach at the southern edge of the Dampier Peninsula. "We dread it happening and we'll fight it coming here," Cox says. "Indigenous people want to share our culture, our history and our land with other people. We want to welcome them to beautiful country, the way it is now, forever."


Getting there

Qantas has direct flights to Broome from Melbourne for $410 one way and from Sydney for $434. Otherwise, there is an aircraft change in Perth. Virgin Blue flies via Perth for $340 one way from Melbourne and $350 from Sydney (all fares include taxes). Hire a four-wheel-drive in Broome to tour the Dampier Peninsula. The Broome Tourist Centre has details of 4WD tour operators.

Staying there

The Ardi-Dampier Peninsula Travellers Guide has information on the places described and other indigenous-run lodgings and enterprises. See Accommodation costs range from $15 a person for a campsite with basic facilities to an upmarket safari tent at Kooljaman for $250 a night. Most places operate on a cash-only basis; few have credit-card facilities.