Broome has a certain reputation when it comes to sunsets. Across Australia, and even beyond, Cable Beach is famous for its golden hour. Every evening, when the sun dips behind the Indian Ocean and casts its glow across the sand, you can bet that people will be pausing to watch, to take photos and relax with a drink in hand. Here especially, sunsets are an event to plan your day around.
A few times a year, though, for a couple of days each month between March and October, visitors come to Broome for a different kind of twilight display. Instead of relaxing on Cable Beach, they flock to mangrove-draped Roebuck Bay on the other side of town. They come not for the sunset, but for the moonrise. This is the Staircase to the Moon.
The Staircase to the Moon happens only during the full moon, when the tide is so low that the rising moon reflects over the exposed mudflats at Roebuck Bay, creating the illusion of stairs leading straight from the mangroves to the sky. It’s the Kimberley’s famously dramatic tides that make this phenomenon possible. With ranges of up to twelve meters, they are known as the biggest in the southern hemisphere and one of the biggest in the world. At high tide, Broome’s Town Beach is all postcard-perfect turquoise water and swaying palms. At its lowest tides, the mudflats stretch forever into horizon, providing endless eats for the local seabirds.
I saw the Staircase to the Moon for the first time in August, when I finished work early and met a big crew of friends from the backpackers at the markets by Town Beach. In Broome, the Staircase to the Moon is one of the biggest events of the tourist season. The Staircase Markets are part of the draw, featuring plenty of local artisans and — for us, more importantly — food trucks.
We snacked our way around the markets, trading sips of smoothies for bites of crepes and spoonfuls of noodles. We wandered and broke off into little clusters, eventually stumbling back into each other as we slowly made our way to the beach for the big show. Some people, it seemed, had been staking out their spots for hours. We, on the other hand, ran on hostel time, as any big group of backpackers is bound to do. Distracted by food and musicians and — best of all! — the cutest, cuddliest little puppy, we took our time.
When the sun had nearly sunk, we joined the crowd on Town Beach. It was at once quiet and restless, full of murmurings: when does it start? and turn your flash off! and which direction are we meant to be looking, anyway? It began to get chilly and we huddled while we waited, counting the minutes.
When the moon finally began slipping into our view, it was big and blood-red. Slowly, it turned to gold; slowly, its reflection began stretching over the mudflats. It wasn’t exactly what I expected. It looked like a staircase, kind of, a long box bound by sharp edges so unlike the seeping, spread-out light of a sunset. It looked, I thought, like the red dirt roads going into the bush around Broome. It was, in any case, beautiful.
I tried for awhile to take photos, but without a tripod and steady long exposure, this magic is tough to capture. I sat as still as I could and clicked away along with everyone around me. One by one, most of us gave up. My pictures resembled an echocardiogram more than a moonrise, and through the wall of my lens, I was kind of missing the show. I put my camera away and simply looked. The crowd was quieter now that we were all watching, the waiting behind us, and it occurred to me that this was the real beauty in the Staircase to the Moon: hundreds of us gathered on the beach, brought together by the moon and the tides to watch the moonrise, an everyday wonder that’s usually taken for granted. Gathered at Town Beach that night, we had all stopped to pay attention the world around us. We watched, together, in awe.
Notes for Visiting
The Staircase to the Moon occurs for two or three days each month between March and October. You can check out the dates and times on Broome’s tourism website here. While Town Beach is the most popular place to watch the event from (and the Staircase Markets definitely worth a visit, especially for some cheap eats!), I’ve since seen the Staircase from the Mangrove Hotel’s bar and have to say that this is the best view in town, hands down. Get there early, because the the bar will be busy; still, the vibe of the crowd here is a lot more relaxed than that of the one at the beach.