Site Requires Javascript - turn on javascript!

Climb an outback staircase to the moon

An incredible natural phenomenon and a spectacular festival of culture are shining a light on the romantic pearling port of Broome.

By Simon Webster
Published: 01 September, 2017

Locations don’t get much more romantic than Broome. The tropical beach town in Australia’s north-west Kimberley region is a heady mix of Outback, ocean and multiculturalism – and home of the Staircase to the Moon. This photogenic natural phenomenon might be a relatively rare occurrence, but it’s just one part of the town’s long-running Festival of the Pearl, a nine-day celebration of Broome’s culture and history with music, food and art events.

Take the staircase to the moon

Staircase to the Moon, Broome, Western Australia

Every full moon, from March to October, something special happens in Broome. As the moon rises, its light reflects off the exposed mudflats of Roebuck Bay, creating a “staircase” leading up to the moon. The optical illusion is a bewitching sight, says Jo Durbridge, marketing manager at Australia’s North West Tourism. “The tide goes out and the moon peeks slowly above the horizon. It’s quite amazing.”

Locals often watch from the open-air bar at the Mangrove Hotel, which offers an excellent vantage point from its position on a dune overlooking the bay. The lights are dimmed, the music is turned down and a didgeridoo is played as the shimmering moon rises, while everyone gazes at the sky for the duration of the 10-minute phenomenon. Elsewhere, people roll out their picnic rugs at the nearby night markets of Town Beach and watch in a family-friendly, festival atmosphere, with live music and food stalls.

This month’s Staircase to the Moon takes place on the evenings of 7, 8 and 9 September. As is the case each September, crowds at both locations will be the biggest of the year, thanks to the Festival of the Pearl, Shinju Matsuri (held this year from 2-10 September).

Embrace Broome’s pearling past

Shinju Matsuri, Broome, Western Australia

In the late 19th century, Aboriginal, Malay, Chinese, Japanese, European and Filipino cultures combined to make Broome the pearling capital of the world. That multiculturalism survives to this day – as does the local pearling industry – and the two are celebrated in Shinju Matsuri (Japanese for “Festival of the Pearl”). This is the festival’s 47th year and its biggest yet, with arts, music, cultural and food events culminating in the fireworks and live performances of the Festival Finale in the Cable Beach Amphitheatre on 10 September.

“Many of the events have a carnival feel, but equally the festival is educational and informative, and great for teaching tourists about Broome’s history,” says the festival’s sponsorship and marketing manager, Tiffany Watson. “We’re a unique, multicultural town. Shinju Matsuri brings all the cultures together and celebrates their unique identities.” Many events are free, too.

Taste pearl meat and party in the street

Sunset Long Table Dinner, Shinju Matsuri, Broome, Western Australia

New to the festival this year is the Pearl Harvest Party (3 September), a street party featuring a Mardi Gras concert, Japanese Taiko drummers, local buskers and Sammy the Dragon. Pearl producers are showing off their harvests and there’s also the option of sampling local delicacies at the Willie Creek Pearl Meat Cook-Off, in which top chefs are working wonders with pearl meat (similar to scallops or abalone) paired with wine.

Pearl meat is also on the menu (alongside other ingredients including barramundi, beef and desert limes) as chef Darren Robertson (of the acclaimed Three Blue Ducks eateries) cooks for 450 people on Cable Beach at the Sunset Long Table Dinner (9 September).

Robertson, who last cooked with pearl meat when he was head chef at famed Sydney restaurant Tetsuya’s, says he’s looking forward to his Broome experience. “I’ve never cooked for 450 people on a beach before,” Robertson says. “I’m excited. It will be amazing. It looks like the most beautiful restaurant on the planet.” 

See history come to life

Floating Lantern Matsuri, Shinju Matsuri, Broome, Western Australia

Broome’s Jetty to Jetty self-guided walking trail is a great way to explore the town’s past at any time of year, but during Shinju Matsuri it really comes to life. In an initiative that was introduced for last year’s festival and that is being expanded this year, there will be live storytelling, performances and films projected onto various buildings (2, 3 and 7 September).

To explore Broome’s Indigenous culture, try the food, music and culture of A Taste of Broome (6 September) or take a short Yawuru Language Course (4-7 September). And for a poignant and unforgettable evening, decorate a lantern, write a message and cast it on the water in the Floating Lantern Matsuri (8 September). You can buy a VIP hamper, including lanterns, dinner and drinks. “It’s really quite moving and a lot of locals embrace it,” Watson says. 

From a Dragon Boat Regatta (9 September) to Opera on Cable Beach (8 September), Shinju Matsuri offers a program as eclectic as the people who have made Broome such a remarkable place in such an unforgettable location. People sink into “Broome time” as soon as they get off the plane, says Durbridge. “The colours blow people away. The red dirt, the white sand of Cable Beach and the aqua water. It’s a beautiful town.”

Feeling hungry? Definitely don’t read this!