Chapter Two: Quality not Quantity!
Back in the 80’s Broome was still very much an outback town where stifling seasonal heat encouraged the traders in Chinatown to shut their doors between the hours of 12 and 2 – a chance for others to take advantage of the cool concrete that lay beneath Streeter & Male’s generous awning.
Pearling was a vibrant industry but Lord Alastair McAlpine recognized a character and charm that might leverage greater distinction.
Broome was ideally situated when it came to quenching the desires of tourism. It was a gateway to The Kimberley – a vast region of considerable natural beauty and, the town was adjacent to one of the best beaches in Australia – the already venerated Cable Beach. McAlpine also appreciated that Broome had not only a colourful history but also an enduring mix of culture and flamboyant personality that gave the town a flavour like no other.
McAlpine was in-fact besotted and set about restoring many of Broome’s historic buildings – the once splendid residences of the pearling masters and, the town’s centre-piece outdoor cinema. He built a sprawling resort overlooking Cable Beach and the ambitious Pearl Coast Zoo which even back in the day, seemed to be well-ahead of its time. He literally ‘opened the door’ to a new wave of interest and Broome was re-invented in a relatively short period of time.
Before this the North Star was acting as a ‘hired-gun’ – a vessel that could fill the gap when some unforeseen circumstance required the transport of people or pearling panels along an otherwise inaccessible coast. She was the perfect option for government departments and their small-party research teams and perhaps a less than perfect option when it came to apprehending the many illegal foreign fishing boats that were now becoming an all-too regular sight laid-up on the beaches and creeks around Broome.
But eventually the tide began to turn. At first it was still the ‘charter game’ - Broome’s propagating reputation as a tourist destination sowed greater interest in fishing charters and the magnificent Rowley Shoals started to attract attention as a destination for dive charters. Carl Roessler was based in San Francisco but a diver of international repute – he was one of the first to charter trips to the remote Rowleys. Mr Chong was another – a revered Taiwanese business man who would reward his best employees with an annual dive trip! Dive operators from Perth also started to become aware of the Rowleys and before long North Star began to offer regular trips to an area that was destined to become an enduring favourite!
There is no doubt – the Rowleys were once bigger than the Kimberley and there were other distractions too – North Star was the first to offer live-aboard access to the whale sharks at Ningaloo and there were trips to even more remote atolls at Seringapatam and Ashmore. However, the Kimberley also started to attract sufficient interest and soon enough North Star chalked-up another first – the company became the first to offer scheduled departures along the Kimberley coast.
But the early days continued to be a struggle. Charter work remained the godsend and one charter in particular proved to be more of a godsend than the rest!
In the 90’s Robert Gerard chartered the first True North.
Gerard was a captain too – a captain of industry.
Amongst other things he headed up Clipsal – the giant electrical accessories company.
And as the story goes – he sat down one star-filled Kimberley night with the captain of the True North and, over several glasses of South Australia’s best – he told Craig Howson that he was doing it all wrong!
Yes, the idea of showing people what the Kimberley coast had to offer was a good one – the place was one of the world’s last remaining coastal wilderness and the many rivers and gorges were perfectly suited to small ship expeditions. The waterfalls were breathtaking as were the swimming holes and billabongs. The wildlife was largely endemic and the fishing was perhaps some of the best in the world. And not forgetting the many pristine examples of Aboriginal rock art – some of the oldest art known to mankind!
People would want to come here for sure – but Gerard suggested it would always be a challenge to make ends meet if the business model relied mostly on putting ‘bums on seats!’
“Quality not quantity” was the astute businessman’s decree.
Provide a higher level of comfort and service and make the experience just that much more special.
It proved to be sound advice indeed and, the start of yet another chapter in the story!
Peter Trembath, September 2016