The Pearl Coast

Sand and sea, sea and sand
And the angels sing from above

by Mack David, Gilbert Becaud and Maurice Vidalin – performed by Frank Sinatra

While it is a myth that Broome was founded on the pearl industry it certainly is a prominent part of the township today. The central shopping district ironically named Chinatown (it was enslaved local indigenous people and hapless Japanese ex whalers who were the backbone of early pearling) is dotted with pearl retailers and the coast has a number of pearl farms. Willie Creek Pearls is one of these and Scout took a tour there while I played my first game of golf in six months with Phil our next door neighbour in the RAC Cable Beach camp. Phil is a 12 handicapper and played in several World Cups for the Hockeyroos a while back. He is 70. Anyway it was great to swing the clubs albeit rustily and chat sport. The Broome course is well grassed which was a surprise so water appears to be no object here.

Willie Creek Oysters

Scout reported back that Willie Creek is more than a pearl farm. It is a pearling experience with a commercial farm, tourism experiences and cafes and restaurants. I had the foresight to retain her credit card before she left and aware that basic pearl prices start in the thousands of dollars I could concentrate on my golf rather than bankruptcy. We were staying in the RAC Cable Beach campground. A nice enough park but overcrowded. This seems to be the story of the winter in Broome. It is, like the Sunshine Coast’s Noosa, a victim of its own success. A population of 14,500 grows to 45,000 in the winter months. The winters are mild (we were in 28-30C days), the town is pleasant, the sunsets are spectacular, there is plenty of history and the cafe and restaurant scene is lively. And access to the sights of West Kimberley is close by.

Cable Beach

So there is the problem. Every winter, June to August, (the cyclone season is November to February) thousands of caravanners, backpackers and other travellers descend on Broome. We were told that to get a camp spot in Broome you need to be booked two years ahead. Not so this year of course but even with Covid dampening travel plans and with school holidays looming spots were at a premium and we were jammed in like oysters on a rack. The town provides overflow campgrounds in the form of empty fields for those not so organised. In a very busy year they provide overflow parks for the overflow parks. Not my scene and I was keen to leave. Scout of course loved it because she could bike all over the place and test cafes for quality.

Cable Beach Camels

But Broome or Rubibi had an interesting history before tourism marked its cards. It is the traditional home to the Yawuru people who thrived on the endless supply of seafood along the coast. They are recognised native title holders of Broome and own large parcels of land around the town. Originally based on farming the area soon learnt the advantages of the natural oyster population. Commercial interest started as mother-of-pearl from the oyster shell which was highly sought after in Europe for buttons in the 1870s. As the easy collecting of oysters from the shore led to overfishing diving for product became necessary. Oysters were harder to find and diving to depths of ten metres was the practice. A risky one at that. The growth of the pearl trade in the 1880s led to dark days in the region. The practice of “blackbirding” or enslaving indigenous men and women as divers was common until legislation outlawed the use of women. This of course begs the question that enslaving men and working them for no wages was ok. The history of pearling and racism is intertwined with the then use of Japanese divers and then Chinese. There is a story of the villagers from the Wakayama coast of Japan. Traditionally whalers the loss of many men who drowned in their nets in a whaling accident meant that the remaining young men of the village came to Broome as divers to support their families. The 919 graves in Broome’s Japanese cemetry attests to the risks involved. The invention of plastic put an end to the button industry but by then the use of seeding oysters with a small piece of mussel shell has led to the booming pearl industry of today. It generates AUD 200m of exports and employs over 1,000 people.

Broome also has a war story. The town was attacked at least four times by Japanese aircraft during World War II. The worst attack in terms of loss of life was an air raid on 3 March 1942 in which at least 86 mainly civilians were killed. There was constant fear of air attacks and submarine activity.

We stayed at Cable Beach named for the communications cable laid from Java to the beach. We would have swum and Scout did have a quick dip a couple of times but the talk of crocodiles swimming from the mangroves was offputting. Heaven knows how the surf life saving club copes but we were assured that it was very safe. The beach teems with overseas backpackers during the day and early evening. The surf club, the Sunset Bar and Grill and Zanders Restaurant sit above the beach with wonderful 180 degree views. The famous Cable Beach camels trudge along with animated tourists wobbling along on top. Camels always give the air of being unconcerned and never seem to break from a leisurely pace. Cable beach is famous for its spectacular sunsets and we spent several early evenings with a beer and glass of wine at the Broome SLC with many others enjoying the sight of a golden sun dropping quickly from the sky trailing a vast pink then orange pallette across the cloudy sky. Each evening a different cloud formation meant a different scene leaving one wondering whether tonights was a William Turner or a Georgia O’Keefe. Despite the beauty of the beach and the bird and animal life the human life was becoming oppressive. It was time to search out the Kimberley’s quieter places and search for some solitude.

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