A candle is burning on the mudflats, and its flame is the moon. This conflagration burns a hole in the black velvet sky, drawing me instinctively to it. If I were to stand up from where I am, seated behind the railings at the Mangrove Hotel, I might descend into the scrub below, cross a dirt track, pick my way through the mangroves secreting in their tangled roots mudskippers and pipis, and walk out into the waterless bay. Somewhere near the horizon I would reach those golden steps, cast in bars of gold upon the wet sand, and climb them one by one until I reached the moon.
But the pathway, when full moon and low tide conspire to imprint a gilded staircase on the exposed mudflats of Roebuck Bay, is all an illusion. In a few hours' time the mighty tide will surge back into the bay, washing away every last trace of moonshine.
How swiftly the spell is broken. Chatter strikes up again; the band begins to play; patrons return to their tables and order drinks with which to toast their good fortune. And indeed, these travellers who have made it all the way to this languid frontier town – one of Australia's remotest outposts – are initiates of a most charmed and exclusive fraternity. For a journey to Australia's Kimberley isn't a spontaneous affair; it requires time, money, planning – and an abiding spirit of discovery.
But the rewards for such effort are immeasurable, for this is the place where the Australia of our collective imagination is made manifest. It is a collision of reddest earth and bluest sea, explosive sunsets and blazing moonrises. It is a primordial kingdom in which Indigenous culture is embedded rather than implied, where dirt roads stretch on forever, where danger feels imminent. It is a country that will stain your clothes (literally) and your psyche (indelibly). Can anyone say they've seen Australia if they haven't yet laid eyes on the Kimberley?
THE BOOM IN BROOME
Snubfin dolphins in Yawuru Nagulagun Roebuck Bay Marine Park.
Happily, the fraternity's membership is growing, thanks largely to the pandemic; unwittingly, it has helped establish this mythic destination as a feature of the mainstream tourist map. Out on the cloudy turquoise swirl of Roebuck Bay – irreconcilable with last night's waterless wasteland – a pair of honeymooners from Perth blink against the sun and smile at this unforeseen providence as we glide towards a pod of rare snubfin dolphins. They had little inkling, they say, of the heavenly honeymoon awaiting them after their wedding last week; if not for COVID, they would have celebrated their nuptials in New Zealand or America instead.
"It's forced us to explore Australia," the bride says.
We're cruising deep into Yawuru Nagulagun Roebuck Bay Marine Park, where sediment-dense waters conceal an abundance of rare and delightful creatures: dugongs, turtles, manta rays, sea snakes and those "snubbies", declared a separate species from their close cousin, the Irrawaddy dolphin, in 2005. Soon migrating humpback whales will arrive for their annual sojourn; and as the year draws to a close, immense flocks of migratory seabirds will clog the east-Asian Australasian flyway in their haste to escape the coming winter in Siberia, Northern China and the Arctic Sea. Alighting in Broome, they will feast for months on the bay's nourishing benthic mudflats.
"Between October and March there's nothing but 100,000 birds on the wing. It is absolutely spectacular," says Cam Birch of Broome Whale Watching. "And then you get all the birds of prey in the trees around here. As soon as the little birds take off, they come down and start feeding on them."
I had travelled here by air myself, a journey from Australia's east coast so interminable it might as well have deposited me in a foreign country. But my fatigue had been vanquished by the masterpiece blooming outside the plane's window as we descended through the cumulonimbus plugging Roebuck Bay: steely storm clouds and delicate veils of rain coalesced with the moribund sun and reflecting their psychedelia off a sheet of polished water.
A STAINED COUNTRY
Gantheaume Point, about 10 minutes from Broome, at sunrise. Photo: Tourism Western Australia
The rain clouds clear next morning, but their impact is evidenced in the spear grass bent double by the last of the wet season rains; this clever trick of nature – known as "knock 'em down rains", or "mujung" in the language of the traditional Yawuru owners – disperses seeds from the grasses' stalks for next year's regrowth. Sparse though it is, the greenery is a striking foil to that red pindan earth – so intensely pigmented, say the locals, its dye cannot be washed from your clothes. Powdered pindan replaces turf at the Broome Turf Club, where officials are readying themselves for the upcoming horseracing season.
"It gets kicked up a fair bit by those horses, ends up in people's clothes, their makeup and their fascinators, and so they douse the track in diesel to make sure that doesn't happen. I'm not sure how good that is for the environment," says tour guide Alex Martin.
"Someone tells me though, after you get to the race course and you have a couple of Champagnes, you can't really smell the diesel anymore anyway."
Driving through town, Martin points out an embankment of paler, salmon-pink sand, a midden developed over thousands of years by the accumulation of shells discarded by the Yawuru people once the shellfish's flesh had been cooked and eaten.
"You won't find that pink sand anywhere else in Broome," he says.
The midden is an immemorial anchoring of tradition amid the inflow of migrants – Japanese, Indonesian, Chinese, Malay, European – who sought their fortune here during the pearling boom of the 19th and 20th centuries. The era is memorialised in the pearling masters' homes in diminutive Chinatown, the Roebuck Bay Hotel – watering hole for about 4000 pearl shell workers in the boom time – and the world's oldest operating outdoor cinema, Sun Picture Gardens, which would fill with water at high tide before the levee was built.
"The ladies used to bring buckets along with them so that they could keep their feet dry," Martin says.
HIGHS AND LOWS IN THE KIMBERLEY
Spearfishing at Cape Leveque. Photo: Tourism Western Australia
Nothing can keep the water from flooding into Willie Creek north of Broome; it surges from the ocean into the river mouth, pinning a ribbon of beach between ultramarine current and a matching, cloudless sky. Some of the world's finest pearls are grown here, ensuring the longevity of the pearling industry generations after the invention of plastic buttons killed off demand for pearl shell.
"There's no better place to grow them," says Robert Banfield, whose family owns Willie Creek Pearls. "There's also no more difficult place to farm them."
An hour ago the creek was a mere dribble, its high tide mark a glistening trail encrusted with salt. Now it's filled with a relentless upsurge capable of swallowing cars whole. This amplified tidal fluctuation – among the world's biggest – chisels and polishes the western edge of the Dampier Peninsula all the way to Cape Leveque, where the alabaster beach is offset by a collar of brittle pindan cliffs. The road to this immaculate outpost was recently sealed, improving accessibility; but progress has its faults.
"[Parks and fisheries] have made access to these areas incredibly easy, and there's no infrastructure in place [for visitors]," Cam Birch had told me earlier. "The amount of damage that's going to get done to the environment now is crazy. People can now tow an eight metre boat to Cape Leveque, launch it and be in the Kimberleys in 20 minutes."
A TAPESTRY WOVEN FROM GEMSTONES
Horizontal Falls, Western Australia. Photo: Tourism Western Australia
I scan for these vessels as we take off from Cape Leveque's airstrip and sail over the Buccaneer Archipelago; land and sea enmesh in the crumpled map spread out beneath me, a wild tapestry of sapphire, emerald and tourmaline. Its power is manifested in two chasms cut into the sandstone and quartz of the McLarty Range. They're mere dribbles from the air, but nature's miracle reveals itself when we land on Talbot Bay: the incoming tide courses through the cataracts at such inordinate velocity and volume the adjacent bays' water levels can't equalise. These fabled "Horizontal Falls", known as Garaanngaddim to the local Dambimangari people, were described by David Attenborough as one of the world's greatest natural wonders.
"It is kind of cool to know that eventually these falls will erode away to the point where the gap widens, there'll be not so much of a restriction in flow, instead just a strong current making its way through," says guide Taj Rowe. "We'll no longer see the separation in height between the two bays."
The tide boils beneath the boat as we fly over the broader of the two falls. Through the second, narrower aperture I can see a slip of bay, preternaturally glassy in the face of the oncoming tide. The scene shrinks and flattens again as the seaplane lifts us off the bay, compressing its secrets into an abstraction of arabesques and fumaroles painted in gemstone colours.
A few weeks from now, when I am home in Sydney, I will ring Yawuru man Bart Pigram, the person best able to interpret this unfathomable land. We were due to meet in Broome when he was called away on law business; if he hadn't gone walkabout – an ancient ritual which his culture requires him to abide by – he would have taken me on a walk instead through the mangroves to Buccaneer Rock, set deep inside the tidal flats of Roebuck Bay; from here we would have observed the staircase to the moon.
The significance of this phenomenon would not have been decoded for me by Pigram, for this is a woman's story and not his to tell. But he would have passed on his culture's liyan, he says – a deep spiritual instinct or gut feeling.
"People, when they feel some sort of presence or spirit, their hair stands up on their back or [they get] goosebumps. When something has really gotten inside you, we call it liyan," he tells me down the line. "It's our centre of feeling and spiritual intuition."
This is what I felt, then, on that night of the full moon, on those days spent traversing wetlands scalloped with embayments and painted in turquoise eddies. It's not the pindan that has left an eternal stain, but my encounter with country; this ancient, living land has provoked an awakening that will never be washed from my psyche.
Cable Beach, Broome, at sunset.
FIVE MORE AMAZING MOMENTS IN AUSTRALIA'S NORTH WEST
Perched on the edge of the continental shelf off Kimberley coast northwest of Broome, these three shallow atolls are like fishbowls submerged in a fathomless sea. Their bright inhabitants – reef fish, corals – are offset by shallow seabeds and the corals walls containing them. See www.parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/park/rowley-shoals
PURNULULU NATIONAL PARK
One of Australia's most startling sights, these beehive-like knolls are striped orange and black and appear particularly striking when view aerially. Secreted within this peculiar huddle are pools and gorges adorned with unexpected greenery. See www.parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/park/purnululu
KARIJINI NATIONAL PARK
Rising from tropical semi-desert plains around the Hamersley Range, this timeworn landscape is sculpted with mountains, escarpments, plateaus and gorges, and quenched with waterfalls and swimming holes. See www.parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/park/karijini
GIBB RIVER ROAD
Take a detour from modern life along this legendary dirt stock route, a 630 kilometre dirt road which runs from Derby to Kununurra and passes through the isolated cattle stations and immense gorges in which Australia's first people stood their ground. See www.australiasnorthwest.com/explore/kimberley/gibb-river-road
BRADSHAW ROCK ART SITE
It's a four-hour detour (one way) off the Gibb River Road to Australia's fabled Indigenous rock art known as "the Bradshaws". Named for the pastoralist who brought them to the world's attention, these paintings differ stylistically from other rock art in the region, and there is much contention over who painted them. See www.bradshawfoundation.com/bradshaws/bradshaw_paintings.php
Qantas operates year-round daily services to Broome via Perth, as well as direct seasonal flights for the majority of the year from Sydney to Melbourne non-stop to Broome. Year-round return fares start from $570. See qantas.com.au
Accommodation at Oaks Cable Beach Resort includes studios, self-contained apartments and three-bedroomed free-standing villas with private plunge pools. Low season rates start from $160 a night for a twin-share studio. See oakshotels.com/en/oaks-cable-beach-sanctuary
Broome's 'staircase to the moon' occurs monthly between March and November. See visitbroome.com.au/info/staircase-to-the-moon-dates. Broome and Around offers customised tours, charters, airport transfers and off-road camper hire. See broomeandaround.com.au.
Bart Pigram's Mangrove Discovery Experience costs $85 for adults and $45 for children. See toursbroome.com.au.
Willie Creek Pearls' farm tour starts from $75 a person (self-drive) and $125 a person (including coach transfers). See williecreekpearls.com.au.
Horizontal Falls Seaplane Adventures' full day tour Cape Leveque, the Buccaneer Archipelago and Horizontal Falls starts at $950 a person and includes transport by four-wheel drive seaplane and boat, meals and transfers. See horizontalfallsadventures.com.au
Catherine Marshall was a guest of Tourism Australia.