Broome: The pearl fishers

By Judy Bailey

Broome, the gateway to Western Australia’s Kimberley region, has had a tough past, writes Judy Bailey.
Sunset provides a spectacular backdrop to a camel train tour.
Sunset provides a spectacular backdrop to a camel train tour.

'I want to take you to the cemetery," my guide says enthusiastically. Not your usual first port of call when discovering a new town, but this stop sets the scene beautifully.

Broome is a classic small, coastal town. It's 2000km to the nearest big city and these days it's a tourist town, the gateway to one of the world's last great wildernesses, the Kimberley. From here you can join cruises up the coast to explore the rivers, waterfalls and reefs that have long been a magnet for adventurers from all over the world.

Or you can be part of the great army of intrepid four-wheel-drive explorers and take to the red dirt highway. The coastline is home to stunning camel tours.

It turns out the cemetery is the last resting place for many of Broome's earliest non-indigenous inhabitants, the Japanese. They came, most of them, as divers to work alongside aborigines in the flourishing pearl industry of the 1860s. Broome at that time was one of the richest places in Australia. Built on pearling, it once provided 80 per cent of the world's pearl shell buttons.

It was a hazardous business. Many pearl divers were buried in the foetal position, as they died with the bends. Some of the headstones look unfinished, rough on top. Those I'm told belong to the men who died young, their lives not yet finished. There are many rough markers. It was a brutal industry.

Later I get a unique insight into the lives of the divers and the intrigue and derring-do of the pearl masters on the Pearl Luggers tour. They bring the pearling history to life with great props and rare underwater footage from the 40s. The divers would be forced to dive non-stop for long hours, 15-20m down. The advent of the first dive suits didn't improve their lot. The entire suit weighed about 200kg, much of that in the lead-soled dive boots that kept the divers upright on the seabed. Apparently, young pregnant aboriginal girls were highly prized as divers. They had more oxygen in their systems and could therefore stay down longer.

The Japanese would be joined by Chinese, Malays and Indonesians over the years and as a result, many of the town's locals are of mixed-race heritage.

Pearling was Broome's lifeblood for much of last century until plastic replaced pearl shell for the button industry. These days the pearling is carried out in pearl farms, producing cultured pearls. A tiny grain of sand is injected into the oyster, forming a man-made pearl. A natural pearl is hard to find now, they reckon about one in 100,000 oysters has one. Broome has another Japanese, Kokichi Mikimoto, to thank for resurrecting the pearl industry. He was one of the pioneers of the cultured pearl farms you can visit along the Kimberley coast.

An indigenous man in Broom.
An indigenous man in Broom.


The houses here are built of corrugated iron. I would have thought it would be like living in an oven in Broome's often 40C heat, but the locals tell me they're quick to heat and quick to cool down. They're also traditionally painted red and green in a nod to the days of the pearlers, when seamen would take the paint left over from refurbishing the boats and use it on their homes. The older homes have latticework screens that create breeze ways, an ingenious forerunner to air con.

The greenest place in town is the golf course, it's watered by treated sewage and, incongruously, perfectly manicured in the midst of the red dust. They reckon there's a big incentive to stay on the fairway here, you're liable to come across huge pythons in the rough.

Broome is famous for having one of the best dinosaur footprint collections in the world.

They're there, in the rocks overlooking the turquoise waters of Roebuck Bay, left by giant creatures more than 130 million years ago. They can be seen only at low tide but there's an impression of the real thing on concrete as we head down Gantheaume Point to the beach.

A Broome landmark not to be missed is the town's open-air cinema, Sun Pictures. It's another slice of history. Apparently the world's oldest operating picture garden, and pretty much unchanged since the early part of last century. You can sit in canvas deck chairs and soak up the latest releases. The Kiwi hit Hunt For the Wilderpeople was playing when I called in.

You have to be prepared to battle the elements. The locals reckon that back in the day, ladies would sit with their feet in buckets to keep them dry during the rainy season. When the tides are high here, crocs have been seen outside on the main street ... or so they say.

Don't leave town without trying the locally brewed beer at Matso's Brewery. It's in one of the town's oldest buildings, originally a bank for the pearlers. The mango beer is spectacular in the heat, and the Hit the Toad pilsner goes perfectly with my giant tiger prawn, paw paw and melon salad. I spend a couple of hours there sharing stories with travellers at the next table. Broome's like that, everyone has time to chat.

As I sit outside Matso's, waiting for the taxi to take me back to the golden sands of Cable Beach, an elderly aboriginal man, stooped over his walking stick, shuffles towards me. He sinks down on the bench next to me, his dark eyes twinkling as we strike up a conversation. He asks me my name ... "Judy", I tell him. "Judy, Judy, Judy I love you," he sings beguilingly with his gap-toothed, gummy smile. He is a charmer. We share a taxi. It turns out he's one of the local tribal elders. Gilbert is his name. I'll remember him long after the holiday euphoria fades.

CHECKLIST

Getting there
Air New Zealand offers almost daily non-stop flights between Auckland and Perth. One-way Economy Class fares start from $522.

Online
westernaustralia.com

- NZ Herald

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