Pearl of the north
Orange dust roads, powdery white beaches, red-hot cliffs … the colours and textures of this corner of the Kimberley are like no other.
My friend was most adamant in his response to my news that I was headed for Cape Leveque in Western Australia’s Kimberley region: “Don’t miss the turn-off.” His warning plays like a mantra as I head out of Broome, and even when I see the sign telling me to turn, I find myself doubting whether I’m on the right track. Could this rough red road really be the route to one of Australia’s most memorable attractions?
I’ve made no mistake. I’m being slowly bounced towards an Aboriginal community at Beagle Bay, 130km north of Broome on the Dampier Peninsula and site of Sacred Heart Church.
Externally, it’s attractive but unremarkable, much like many other churches flashing by on outback drives. No, it’s the extraordinary interior that makes this place of worship so unusual.
Intricate mother-of-pearl inlays decorate the floor and window frames. But the altar is the masterpiece. It’s completely in sparkling mother-of-pearl. Side altars and other parts of the church showcase inlaid shells of several species.
Catholic monks and teams of Aboriginal worshippers sweated for three years from 1914 to build the church. Several restoration projects followed subsequent ravages by termites and wild weather.
Another 60km north comes another turn-off from the Broome-Cape-Leveque road. It leads to a different Aboriginal community, Lombadina, where monks and their congregation hand-built a timber church in 1932. It also quickly became an attraction.
The Lombadina community welcomes visitors, peppering intrepid southerners with questions. It has accommodation as well as cultural tours (covering bush tucker and centuries-old medications), kayaking, fishing trips, mud crab catching (followed by feasts) and safe snorkelling from deserted white-sand beaches.
From here it’s a short drive to Cape Leveque, northern tip of the Dampier Peninsula, and a pause at a settlement called One Arm Point where an Aboriginal community provides tours of its aquaculture hatchery which concentrates on breeding trochus, a type of shellfish, to restock nearby reefs.
With stops along the way, it takes two to three hours to drive the 205km from Broome to Cape Leveque (110km unpaved). Most visitors are making side-trips from Broome-based holidays. Broome has diversions aplenty but the Kimberley’s alluring ochre-hued ruggedness proves irresistible to many a visitor.
Although 4WDs are recommended (and easily rented in Broome), I see several sedans on this dusty orange ribbon which disappears into the distance.
The road, I’m told, is fine for regular vehicles – except in the October-March wet season or when grading is imminent to smooth corrugations and eliminate potholes. So it’s wise to check road conditions with Cape Leveque resorts before making the trip.
At Cape Leveque I’m spoilt for choice and so I divide my time between the two resorts (which have strong similarities). Kooljaman is owned by the Bardi people. The other, Cygnet Bay, describes itself as Australia’s oldest still-operating pearl farm – and the only one taking guests. Both properties have good restaurants, with pearl meat (from pearl-growing oysters) on the Cygnet Bay menu.
My tent at Kooljaman is better furnished than many a hotel room. On a wooden platform, it comes with an en-suite bathroom. It’s at the base of 13m Cape Leveque Lighthouse, built in 1912 and automated 74 years later. Of similar standard, my opulent Cygnet Bay tent has a gorgeously secluded forest setting.
Kooljaman can keep you busy with whale-watching, bird-spotting and cultural tours explaining Bardi customs and traditional lifestyles. A short walk takes me to Cape Leveque’s renowned red cliffs. This is far-flung Australia at its ruddiest, a vista enhanced by powdery beach as white as bleached bone and tropical sun glistening off turquoise sea.
The highlight at Cygnet Bay – where tours include pearl farm activity and an oceanographic research laboratory – is the adrenaline-pumping Great Tides Tour. A jet-boat hurtles through wild water surging between rocks before cruising alongside a weird natural phenomenon: an at-sea waterfall.
At low tide (in an area with 10m tides, among the world’s biggest), an undersea wall about 100m long appears. Water plunges 2m over this rocky cliff, sending enormous plumes of spray into the air. Residents call it Waterfall Reef.
Cape Leveque is unlikely ever to be a mass-tourism destination. Its remoteness virtually guarantees that, making isolation a fact of life. In some spots, you probably won’t have to share Cape Leveque’s wonders with anyone.
Kooljaman resort: www.kooljaman.com.au. Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm: www.cygnetbaypearls.com.au.
For more regional information on the Kimberley, call (08) 9195 2200 or go to www.australiasnorthwest.com.
There are member discounts on car and campervan hire, travel insurance and even for the train to get you to WA.
Ask at any RACV shop, call 13 13 29 or go to racv.com.au/travel.
RACV CAN HELP
RACV shops stock all sorts of products for a driving holiday, visit any RACV shop or racv.com.au/shop.