Broome

Broome Travel Blog

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Baobab Tree at the Town Beach, Broome

Today I got up at 7am to take advantage of the lushious looking pool and free breakfast. I put my washing on and padded around the deserted hostel in my bikini, swam a few lazy laps, had some cornflakes. I caught the bus into town; the bus is a family-run private business put on for tourists and locals alike. The driver was a young lad, friendly and a little scatty, who was eager to tell me all the best things to do. Despite being late on his round, he still found time to do a special detour down to the Town Beach and let me and another sight-seer jump off and take photos.

I started by walking around the main town, or Chinatown as it is known. Even at 10am it was 35 degrees and already 65% humidity. It was bearable to walk in, but nothing more than a stroll.

Pearling boat
The lush, tropical greenery reminded me of the Bahamas, but not of the horrible, synthetic false idyll; here palms, gums and boabs are not strategically planted to create a beautiful vista. The flapping fronds, and thick, green leaves grow where they please and the town is not based solely on tourism. It just happens by accident to be stunningly beautiful with the red earth (pindam), tropical greenery and brilliant blue skies (if impossibly hot, tranquil and sparsely populated).

I wandered first into the old Pearling Museum to see the two remodelled luggers, and joined a fascinating tour about the history of the Broome pearling industry. I was reluctant at first, but it turned out to be a great tour.

Holding a $100,000 pearl and an $8000 dollar pearl

Broome 100 years ago grew from another industry; mother-of-pearl. In fact Broome grew to be the world producer of.....wait for it....buttons. They supplied 85% of the world's buttons, because their shells were the largest so they got the most value for each shell. Pearls at that time were an unusual aside; only maybe 100 pearls would be found for every 15,000 shells collected, and of those only 10% would be marketable. Pearls are actually created by an irritation to the oyster.

The first time it was realised mother-of-pearl was here in Broome was when someone noticed the indigenous population wearing the shells around their waists. Recieving one of these plates is a rite of passage for aborigine boys and they believe them to be scales of the Rainbow Serpent, and use them in their water-finding rituals in the desert.

The Sunset Outdoor Film screen
So the businessmen forced the aborigines into slave labour to find these shells for them, and at first they were finding them in the shallows, but as the populations were depleted, they had to dive further and further out.

Soon enough these men were diving to depths of up to 8 metres and were either drowning from misjudging their remaining breath, being eaten by shark attacks (attracted firstly by whipping slaves leaving open wounds, and later because the sharks knew where dinner tended to hang out), or by getting the bends. They were losing 10% of their workforce so they decided to buy in the latest technology in diving, the copper head suits. So they bought them in 2 sizes according to the rough sizes of the aborigines.

The aborigines didn't want to wear the suits, they could see they were heavy and thought the white men were trying to drown them, so they refused.

The Japanese Cemetary
And the white men, who understood the technology were happy to do it but were demanding double pay, plus commission on the shells and on any pearls. So the pearlers looked to Japan, where a recent storm had wiped out a town's whaling fleet. The towns families couldn't earn money to buy more boats because they had no boats to make money, so the pearlers offered them a 3 year contract in Australia diving for pearls.

So the Japanese flocked to Broome, but unfortunately the suits didn't fit the men as they were smaller. But they were told just to make it work. So to pad out, and also to stay warm at depths of up to 40 metres (though the lowest recorded was 65m which is outrageously dangerous in such equipment), they wore thick woollen socks up tp their thighs, plus woollen long-johns.

Cable Beach at sunset
When these fell to bits, Mrs Streeter (the pearlerman's wife) made Mrs Streeter's Blanket Pants out of the only things she had. They then wore thick woollen jumpers, beanie hats and a thick, looped pad to cushion the copper shoulder plate. They would then climb through the neck of their canvas and rubber suit, fit the copper shoulder plate on and heavy boots of 10kg each. Then standing on the edge of the boat (before they fell through it cos of the weight) and with one diver on either side of the boat, they would finally have their copper spherical helmet screwed on. They had usually added about 110kg to their weight, twice what I weigh!

The diver's attendent (shortened to tender) would pay out the air line to the diver, and the diver would use his valve to let air out of the suit to descend. If he got this wrong he would sink too fast and if he hit the sea floor too fast he would break his legs and hips on impact. On the sea floor he would be dragged along by the current, so would be leaning at an angle mostly, known as 'diver's drag'. When he saw a shell, he would tug the line and the attendent would pay out a measured length to allow the diver to lean forward more to pick up the shell.

It was long hours (all day from sunrise to sunset, 6 days a week, 9 months/year) extremely dangerous and there was much to go wrong. If a whale tapped the boat or the line, or the diver, the air and support line might be lost, plummeting the weighed down diver to the horizontal, where the weight would stop him escaping and the air would escape from his suit through the sleeves and he would drown. Sea creature attacks were still common, or accidental death from manta rays. Sickness, pain or heart attacks from the bends were a possibility (if a diver developed the bends in bed later at night, the only cure was to go out in the boat again, re-don all the gear, go back to the lowest depth of the day and spend as many hours, in agonising pain, possible delerium and misery coming back up again slowly in the pitch-black). In short, it was dangerous work, and hard on the body too. Divers worked for 15 years if they survived (there is a Japanese and Chinese cemetary in Broome) and ended up gaunt and withdrawn from the pressure changes.

During the war the Japanese workers were rounded up and sent to Victoria to stop the possible passage of information regarding Broome's coastline, resources etc from foreign families and friends who had been allowed to come and go for years. The luggers were also all burned during the war to stop them being targeted, so it's hard to find pre-war examples.

After the war things continued as were, but ultimately the industry suffered a massive hit with the introduction of plastic, which destroyed the button industry. It was only then that they started to look for pearls instead , and in the 1950s the pearlers decided that it would be more profitable to buy into the new technology of wetsuits and scuba gear. The old pearlers were angry, and refused to change over, they believed if it ain't broke don't fix it and were angry to lose their prestige as a pearl diver when any young whipper snapper could learn now in a matter of weeks. But for an experimental term some young lads matched the old methods shell for shell and it was felt they would only improve with experience. The last old-style copper head diver stopped in 1975.

Now, as then, pearls are cultivated by an injection method. The oyster has a tiny nucleus injected into it and the oyster grows a substance known as nacre over it. After a couple of years, the pearl is removed and replaced with another nucleus the same size. This can be repeated up to 5 times as the oyster gets bigger and bigger to accomodate the bigger pearls. However, not all pearls are perfect. Pearls are graded by 5 things; size, roundness, colour, lustre, complexion and any defect in any of these affect the value. I got to hold 2 pearls; one worth $100,000 (!) and another worth about $8000 but with much better lustre to show the contrast. We also got to try pearl meat, which is the muscle of the osyter. This was deliciously tender, though fairly tasteless, but wonderful with ginger, garlic and soy sauce. But expensive at $120/kilo!

Anyway, enough of all that. After that I wandered round the town; to the Streeter's Jetty (where the 400 luggers used to dock), the old Courthouse, the outdoor cinema Sun Pictures, the monuments to the divers (demonstrating diver's drift), the Johnny Chi historical walk (through an oriental style arcade of shops), and the Japanese cemetary. By now the weather was really starting to threaten; it is the wet season here and many of the tours aren't running because it's the off-season. But by wet, it really only means about half an hour torrential rain a day, after which the humidity goes up to about 95%! So I decided to head back to town centre to grab a late-lunch. Here I almost came acropper though as many food places stop serving after 3pm! I had a great meal at Bloom cafe in the end (chicken, bacon, feta and pumpkin salad) and after a few stops at some hostels to check their noticeboards for offered lifts out south out of town, I headed back.

Back at the hostel I got back into the delicious pool and relaxed my aching limbs and soothed my heat-baked and sticky skin. Sliding into the pool was akin to heaven, I only wish I could also have rested my head in the water to doze without fear of drowning! After a dip I wandered off to find my room mate who I had briefly suggested the night befor taking a drive down to Reddell Beach, a pindan (red earth) beach to watch the sunset. We couldn't get to Reddell on account of the road being closed (wet season), though I think he was relieved since his isn't a 4WD! So we settled for the 'Entrance Point' look-out. The sunset itself was fairly bland, but the skies and clouds were spectacular, in a huge array of shapes, styles and colours. I noticed many times today the unusual cloud formations and colours, with layers of steel, black, cream and blue, and tonight we saw a long thin line of fluffy cloud against blue, with pink and grey misty clouds above, an anvil shaped cloud against pastel skies, and the burnt orange sky above the invisible sun.. The light was weird, the sea went green and somehow the air itself had a thick, pink hue. I thought his car windows were tinted as we drove away but he agreed the thick light was bizarre and just a weird effect of the sunset.

joh-meister says:
What a great description of Broome! Well done on visiting during the wet season, my favourite time of the year, when it is a sleepy little town. If you're interested, there is a website with videos about Broome. It's www.broomevideo.com, although your descriptive writing certainly conjures up good pictures in my mind!
Posted on: Apr 17, 2008
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Baobab Tree at the Town Beach, Bro…
Baobab Tree at the Town Beach, Br…
Pearling boat
Pearling boat
Holding a $100,000 pearl and an $8…
Holding a $100,000 pearl and an $…
The Sunset Outdoor Film screen
The Sunset Outdoor Film screen
The Japanese Cemetary
The Japanese Cemetary
Cable Beach at sunset
Cable Beach at sunset
Broome
photo by: Morle