Boasting possibly the best beaches in the Kimberley, Cape Leveque is a dream destination for off-road travellers: remote, breathtakingly beautiful and supplying excellent services you won’t expect to find this far off the beaten track. The corrugations are conquered in a morning’s drive north of Broome and there’s nothing like a relaxing float in Cape Leveque’s calm, deep blue to settle the off-road shakes.
While there are a few places to camp on the Dampier Peninsula, the creature comforts on offer at Kooljaman’s wilderness camp tempt travellers to the very tip where you can plug into power, splurge on your very own private beachfront camping shelter, or pitch a tent in the camping area – hot showers and a stellar Indian Ocean sunset included.
En route, your three hour-long journey from Broome might well be stretched by visits to Beagle’s Bay incredible mother-of-pearl shell church, the Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm and beaches at Middle Lagoon, Pender Bay and One Arm Point on the northern edge of King Sound.
Based on our experience and the advice of locals, you really do need a 4WD vehicle to tackle the 90 kilometres of corrugated dirt that remains unsealed on the Cape Leveque Road, and most importantly, the soft, sandy access tracks that lead into all the best beaches, including Kooljaman. Although we spotted off-road caravans handling the conditions quite well, they are not permitted at Kooljaman and might struggle to get in anyway. Most caravanners we chatted to were quite happy to have unhitched their homes in Broome and were enjoying the adventure of finally breaking out their sparkly new tents, packed on board for just this kind of special experience.
Not that you’ll need to rough it at Kooljaman. Despite its remote location, this wilderness camp manages to provide travellers with hot showers and drinking water, a camp kitchen and laundry, plus several sheltered barbecue and picnic areas that are well lit in the evenings. Overlooking the red cliffs of Western Beach, Raugi’s Restaurant offers alfresco dining day and night, with meals ranging from $25-$40. If you fancy a splurge, BYO a bottle or two and watch the sun go down over Western Beach from the restaurant’s deck before enjoying your meal.
Cape Leveque’s pristine coastline of red cliffs, Pindan woodlands and white sand beaches is best appreciated on a stroll along Western Beach. This is a quieter part of the Cape to spend some time because strong currents sweeping along the shore make it less than ideal for swimming, but perfect for stretching your legs, lazing with a book or simply enjoying some solitude. The dramatic sunsets and the colours thrown back up onto the rust-coloured cliffs are not to be missed. Sacred to traditional owners, the cliffs that tower over Western Beach are off-limits but you can drive or walk along the track that leads down to a car park on the beach. Just remember to carry a torch if you are walking back to camp after dark.
On the other side of the cape on Eastern Beach, a bright blue bay nudges against a shimmering curl of sand and swimmers bob about in the clearest of seas. Its a simply stunning beach: beautiful to photograph and too magnificent to resist. Just walking along it seems to take forever when you keep dipping and dunking into the shallows, bending to fossick for shells before stripping off again and sliding back into the sea.
At the end of the bay, a jumble of boulders and short, steep sand dunes give way to rocky reefs that come within perfect snorkelling range at low tide. Head here with your snorkelling gear when the tide retreats, or poke around the corner into the next bay for more secluded swims and fishing at Boat Launch Beach.
As the name suggests, you can launch a tinny here and access a seemingly endless stretch of sand that sweeps far away to a distant headland with plenty of beach fishing opportunities in between. Follow the road that leads past Eastern Beach and stop to deflate your tyres at the workshop before hitting the kilometre-long track down onto the beach. If you haven’t brought one, there’s an air compressor available at the workshop to inflate tyres when you return.
The fishing in this part of the world varies with the seasons, but during the most popular dry season (May to September), you might snare queenfish or trevally off Western or Boat Launch Beaches. If you have a boat, try the exposed reefs off Eastern Beach for blue bone groper, red emperor, northwest snapper or coral trout, or troll beyond the tide line for Spanish mackerel. Seek out barramundi and mangrove jack up the Dampier Peninsula’s creeks and rivers, and try for good-tasting treadfin salmon on an incoming tide and around creek mouths when the tide is high.
If you haven’t yet experienced the northwest’s extravagant tidal ranges, it’s worth noting that they are the biggest in the southern hemisphere, moving up to 10 metres with every tide. When it’s a full or new moon, very high and very low spring tides prevail, retracting to weak, neap tides with less variation in tidal heights during the quarter moon phases.
If your catch is favourable there’s a designated fish cleaning area in front of Dinka’s Café on Eastern Beach, and plenty of barbecues back in camp. Dinka’s Café hires out fishing and snorkelling too, and can fuel you up with coffee, smoothies and snacks throughout the day.
You could easily spend a couple of days enjoying the beaches and bays around Cape Leveque, but if you want to venture further, Kooljaman staff can book you onto a reef fishing trip or sunset cruise aboard Oolard II, where you might spot humpback whales from July to September. Other tours on offer include an affordable bush tucker walk ($45 for an hour), a night fishing adventure ($80, 3-4 hours) and bucket list helicopter and plane flights over the Buccaneer Archipelago.
When Kooljaman opened in 1986 – the year Cape Leveque’s lighthouse was automated and the Aboriginal Development Commission purchased the land – it was a modest operation with a very basic campground and a handful of humble beach humpies propped up along the waterfront. I suspect that not much had changed when I hitched a ride with the Cape Leveque mail truck 10 years later, arriving at Kooljaman after a long, dusty day spent delivering mail and goodies and chatting over hot cuppas at communities all over the peninsula.
Back then I pitched my hiker tent in a mostly deserted campground and spent long days in the sun, swimming and beachcombing for enormous shells.
The camp has come a long way since then and today, those thatched waterfront shelters now set you back $75 a night in peak season. It’s proudly 100% owned by local Bardi Jawi people from nearby Djarindjin and Ardyaloon (One Arm Point) communities, but the day-to-day running of Kooljaman appears to be mostly in the hands of non-indigenous workers, a situation that traditional owners have aspirations to rectify.
Cape Leveque and the entire Dampier Peninsula has a particularly rich heritage that begins with Aboriginal Australians. It’s estimated that Indigenous occupation began sometime between 50,000 and 70,000 years ago after the last Ice Age when sea levels rose making islands out of mountains and bringing the sea and seafaring peoples far inland. Bardi saltwater people would have had contact with Indonesian and Macassan fishing fleets, and perhaps watched the arrival of European explorer William Dampier, the first recorded European to set foot on Australian soil in 1688.
According to legend, Dampier ventured ashore at Broome’s Roebuck Bay to bury a treasure of pirated pieces-of-eight at Buccaneer Rock, before sailing north around Cape Leveque and into King Sound and Cygnet Bay, which he named for his sailing vessel, the Cygnet. The French came more than 100 years late aboard the Geographe, led by explorer Nicholas Baudin and carrying on board hydrographer Pierre Leveque for whom the cape is named.
William Dampier’s legend has long fuelled a fascination with what lies beneath the Dampier Peninsula’s deep blue, but it was the discovery of pinctada maxima – giant silver-lip pearl oysters containing once precious mother-of-pearl – that put the northwest region on the map. In the early 1880s, the risky business of pearling employed a substantial workforce of Indigenous free divers and later, when the shallow pearl beds had been picked clean, a fleet of 400 pearl luggers crewed by Malay, Filipino and Indonesian deck hands that sailed helmeted Japanese divers into deeper, more dangerous waters.
The world’s desire for mother-of-pearl eventually waned, and WWII air raids that destroyed 16 flying boats anchored in Broome’s Roebuck Bay halted the pearling trade. But 70 years of pearling had left its mark, both in the intermingling of cultures responsible for Broome’s unique multiracial mix, and the people’s continued love affair with pearls that are today cultured on coastal farms.
If the lustre of pearls intrigues you can take a one-hour tour of Cygnet Bay Pearls, a short drive east of Kooljaman ($27 adults, $10 kids). The oldest pearling operation in Australia, Cygnet Bay Pearls is famous for having cultivated possibly the most valuable pearl in the world, a big, round, high quality specimen measuring 22.24mm in diameter. There are plenty of ways to splurge here and private bush campsites with power cost $60 a night.
Beyond Cygnet Bay the road ends at One Arm Point where the Ardyaloon community sells groceries and 24-hour fuel and conducts tours of its trochus hatchery. To explore the area’s beaches and vantage points you’ll first need to pay a $15/person entry fee in town. South of Cape Leveque the Lombadina community collects a more affordable entry fee of $10/vehicle to explore the township and beaches, while Beagle Bay lures visitors to its amazing church for the cost of a gold coin donation.
Taking its name from the HMS Beagle that surveyed the coast in 1838, Beagle Bay is the home of the Nyul Nyul people who called the area Ngarlun Burr, meaning ‘place surrounded by springs’. The centerpiece of this long-running Indigenous community with a history of catholic missionaries is undoubtedly the Sacred Heart Church, built by locals and German priests and brothers while they were under internment in the settlement during World War I.
Inspired by a photograph held by one German brother, the church was built over two years using 60,000 hand-made clay bricks, fired in local kilns and cemented with lime made by burning shells. Another 30,000 bricks went into completing the church’s 12-metre high bell tower and a bush timber ceiling was plastered with lime and inlaid with mother of pearl shells to replicate the stars and constellations of the night sky. The timber ceiling was destroyed and replaced many years ago, but the church’s mosaics, created by local women with mother of pearl, cowries, volutes, olive shells and opercula, a rare stone found in shellfish, create distinctive scenes that make this sacred church one in a million.
Location: Kooljaman is located 220km north of Broome, about a three-hour drive. Although only 90km of the Cape Leveque Road remains unsealed, you’ll need a 4WD vehicle to tackle the corrugations and other soft, sandy access tracks. From Broome, head east on the Great Northern Highway for 10km, turn north (left) onto Cape Leveque Road and enjoy 15km of sealed comfort before you bump off the bitumen. About 90km later the bitumen comes back as you near Beagle Bay, and continues to Kooljaman. Camper trailers and small off-road campervans are permitted at Kooljaman, but caravans are not.
Facilities: Hot showers, toilets, a camp kitchen, barbecue and picnic shelter, drinking water, laundry, bins, a café and restaurant (BYO alcohol) are provided onsite (no fuel). The reception sells a small selection of emergency supplies and souvenirs, and can organise local fishing, mudcrabbing and cultural tours, plus helicopter and plane transfers, and scenic flights.
Camping fees: In the peak April-to-October season, Kooljaman’s 23 campsites cost $38 for one to two people plus $5 for power ($10/child aged three years and over). The ever-popular private beach camping shelters are $75/night. If you are not overnighting at Kooljaman there’s a $5/person day-use charge. No dogs permitted are permitted and bookings are essential (the campground was full at lunchtime on our visit).
Best time to visit: The Dampier Peninsula is at its best from May to September when monsoonal skies clear, the humidity abates and mild temperatures range from 15˚C to 31˚C.
Don’t Miss: Shinju Matsuri – Festival of the Pearl (August/September), Taste of Broome (May), Broome Cup Day (August) and Mowanjum Festival (July).
Staircase to the Moon 2015: September 28-30, October 28-30, November 26-28.
Contact: Find out more and make an online booking at www.kooljaman.com.au, or phone on (08) 9192 4970. For information on Broome, head to www.visitbroome.com.au, phone the Broome Visitor Centre (open seven days) on (08) 9195 2200 or drop by to pick up a copy of the Ardi Guide ($5), a travellers guide to the Dampier Peninsula including Cape Leveque. For road condition reports and to download a map of Broome, go to www.broome.wa.gov.au.