A pearl called Broome – far far away

Town Beach, Broome

How do I describe Broome? A famous pearling town and frontier to Australia’s remote Kimberley wilderness. Perched by the Indian Ocean at the edge of a desert – more than 2,000 kilometres from Western Australia’s capital city, Perth and over 1,800 kilometres from the Northern Territory’s Darwin.

Tourist posters promote its fame as a beach resort – offering a warm tropical climate in the middle of Australian winters, kilometres of fine white sand beaches and chock full of high end resort hotels and swimming pools.

Broome’s famous CABLE BEACH

It is all of that, but it is also a town like none you’ve ever seen before. An outback Australian town with a rich unique Aboriginal, European and Asian history. Multicultural long before the word was invented. Did I mention the sharks and crocodiles that occasionally visit the local beaches? I did point out this was a ‘frontier town’, so be prepared for a little adventure!

The one below is a Kimberley giant saltwater crocodile, but luckily a captured one I photographed at Broome’s Malcolm Douglas Crocodile Park!

I’ve been visiting Broome since the 1970’s – my first trip from Perth to Broome by road – 3000 kilometres in a VW kombi van with my hubby and two young kids.

My very first story on this blog on 28 February last year detailed my latest road trip there – a step up from the Kombi in a nice Toyota Landcruiser – still with hubby, sans kids! So if you haven’t read it, then perhaps check it out in tandem with this story.

Of course, you can fly to Broome. It has an international level airport, and just prior to the pandemic, direct flights were introduced from Singapore. Suspended at present, but hopefully back when the virus subsides.

Broome is a town of extremes. which adds to its adventurous spirit. It faces cyclone threats, spectacular thunderstorms and lightning shows, soaring temperatures, and heavy tropical rain in the wet season from November through to around April. Last month, 179.4 mm of rain fell in one day, flooding the centre of Broome. Children took to play in flooded parks in kayaks and rubber boats – reflecting the outback Aussie attitude of making the best of things.

Then there is the much more pleasant dry season, bringing warm tropical weather throughout the Australian winter and early autumn – a magnet for holidaying visitors from around the world.

The tourist posters usually feature Broome’s famous Cable Beach, a 22 kilometre long ribbon of fine white sand bordering the Indian Ocean. I visit it for an overview every time I’m in Broome, but I confess I’ve never dropped a towel there or even set my toes onto it. Because, I think there’s far more fascinating things to delve into. To know Broome, you need to delve into its fascinating history. Peel away its many layers, and you will find much more than you expected.

For instance, be sure to have a drink at Broome’s historic Roebuck Hotel. This pub was here in the late 1800’s when Broome was a wild rough place as workers for the fledgling pearl industry packed the town. Think of all those cowboy towns in movies you’ve seen. They had nothing on Broome! When it’s hot in Broome, the water is turned on to mist drinkers and keep them cool!

The back verandah at the Roebuck Hotel – fondly known as ‘The Roey’

Broome in its early days was a melting pot for all sorts of characters and nationalities – Japanese, Chinese, Koepanger (Timorese), Malay, European and Australian Aboriginal cultures. Not always a harmonious pot. Social prejudices led to race riots and the European population enforced strict racial segregation. However, the Asian communities endured and thrived, becoming major contributors to Broome’s development.

China town in Broome

The centre of Broome is still known as ‘Chinatown’ and in the main street you will find statues of two of Broome’s famous Asian sons – Hiroshi Iwaki from the Pearl Propriety Limited who selected Kuri Bay as the site of Broome’s pearling industry and Tokuichi Kuribayashi, originally from Nippon Pearl Company, Tokyo, a founder of the industry. Kuri Bay is named after him. They stand alongside one of their business partners pearling pioneer Keith Dureau.

Wander through Broome today and you’ll see their footprint. Street murals and plaques honour Broome’s early Asian residents alongside Europeans. And every year the town holds the Shinju Matsuri (festival of the pearl) festival, celebrating Broome’s unique community spirit, cultural diversity and vibrant history.

One that intrigued me was the story of Japanese photographers who recorded Broome’s early days in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Amongst them was Nishioka Eki, who gained a reputation as a fine photographer, and established her own studio. Eki photographed indentured workers to send back to their families in Japan, portraits of Master Pearlers, and produced picture postcards of Broome. When her husband died she married Yasukichi Murakami, 15 years her junior. Murakami was also an excellent photographer and would become one of leaders of his community. When he ran into financial difficulties, she returned to Japan and died within months. He would go on to form a joint pearling venture, and invent a new divers suit. His life story would make a good book!

Johnny Chi Lane today – it was where Eki had her photographic studio

The most successful pearl divers were Japanese, Malays, and Timorese. A friend in Japan tells me that the young Japanese probably never intended to stay. Japan had opened to the world in the late 1800’s, and was in the midst of rapid socio-economic change. She describes the Japanese who came to Broome as dekasegi labourers, most likely planning to return home with money after a few years work in a foreign land.

However, pearl diving was a very dangerous occupation and the risks then were extremely high. Records from Broome’s Historical Society show in 1912 alone, 29 divers died from ‘diver’s paralysis’. In 1914, 33 Japanese men lost their lives pearl diving. Others died when severe cyclones hit the town in 1887 and 1935.

Many Japanese divers in Broome came from Taiji and other small villages in the Wakayama prefecture, about 500 kilometres from Tokyo, and near Osaka. I’m hoping to visit there on a future trip to Japan.

Broome has the largest Japanese cemetery in Australia with more than 900 graves. I find it quite sad walking through it. Although it was given an upgrade some years ago, it is now falling into disrepair again. Many of the young Japanese men in the early pearling days died in their twenties, and lie here. Next to the Japanese cemetery is the Chinese cemetery, telling a similar story.

Many of the Asian newcomers set up successful businesses in Broome, and settled. Their descendants are still prominent in the local Broome community.

Ready to watch a Broome sunset!

Many Broome streets honour Asian born Broome pioneers – Johnny Chi Lane, Sam Su Lane, Tanaka Lane.

At Town beach, I am reminded of Japan by the vermilion red-painted simple Torrii gate. 

Only about ten kilometres from town is the Broome Bird Observatory, a research and education facility, affiliated with BirdLife Australia. It focuses particularly on the value of Broome’s Roebuck Bay as a migratory shorebird area.

It is open to the public, but the road there is rough – even for a 4WD. So you might want to take advantage of their transfer service from town.

The road to the Broome Bird Observatory – yes, that red Kimberley dirt is for real!

Another great attraction in Broome is whale watching. You often need only to go a few kilometres from the shore to see humpbacks on the migratory journey along the Western Australian coast. I’m told the Bay is always calm, even in cyclones. Now I am not sure if that’s true, but on the three occasions I’ve been out there, it’s been as flat as a millpond!

And wow, have there been whales galore! Humpbacks breeching close to the whale watching boat, and even going under us! One of the most wonderful experiences of my life! Don’t get me started! I could write a whole blog on its own on my whale watching off Broome.

Another thing I love about Broome is exploring the red sandstone rocks along some of its coast. Fantastic formations! Even interesting when a sea fog rolls in!

And I love visiting Broome’s Gantheaume Point – stunning particularly at sunset. The beach there is solid enough for vehicles to drive onto – and they do – 4WD’s, buses, farm utes – you name it. At sunset, it’s a giant picnic gathering. People bring their evening meal, their guitars – an experience you should not miss in Broome.

There are endless things I could talk about in Broome – but this blog story could become a novel!

Like the town’s open air Sun ‘Picture’ Theatre – the world’s oldest operating ‘Picture Gardens’, with deckchairs under the night sky. My tip – take a pillow or two. The old deckchairs are a bit tough on the back – but seeing a movie here is something you will always remember.

And the nuns – did I mention the nuns? A tiny group of St John of God women – many of them straight from Ireland who arrived in the Kimberley in 1907 at a time the local mangroves were full of mosquitoes, and lawlessness reigned in the streets. They had come to teach and nurse, embarking with nothing much more than the habits they wore. With little support from their Mother house or church, they came to depend on the local Asian community to help them out with basics such as pots and pans. And in turn, they nursed at the local Japanese hospital – a move that did not go down well with the European population.

In WW2, some of the nuns were nursing at a leprosarium at Derby, north of Broome, when Japanese aircraft headed to bomb the region. The nuns were ordered by government officials to leave for safety. But it would have meant leaving their patients behind. They refused, instead organising a convey of patients, staff and equipment to head on foot into the bush where they hoped they would not be spotted.

The old St John of God convent – now a Heritage Centre

Their 1926 convent in Broome was built by a Japanese carpenter and shipbuilder Hori Gorokitchi, using traditional Japanese building methods. He had arrived in Broome in 1891 at the age of 23. For architecture fans, it is one of only three buildings left in Broome to feature the exposed framing of the traditional carpentry method of Shinkabe.

Today the old convent houses an impressive Heritage Centre that includes a major historical photographic history of the West Kimberley region.

The St John of God nuns story – one that continues today – is amazing – the stuff they make movies about. A story I will leave to tell you more about in another blog story in the future.

MEANWHILE: Watch out for my March story where I will take you to the extraordinary BAY OF FIRES in Tasmania – not the Australian State where I live now, but the island where I grew up.

Broome beach

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