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Broome 3 - Broome Time and a visit to Town

Getting too used to Broome Time

I was really getting much too lazy. Here I was on my second last day in Broome and I hadn’t even seen it yet. Broome is a bit like that.  You settle in, slow down a bit and next thing you know, several years have gone by.  After an early morning swim and being savaged by sandflies* – it’s the little things that get you in the end, I set off to explore.

Broome (permanent population around 14,776 and about 45,000 in tourist season), started out as a base for the pearling trade in the 1860’s.  Initially it was the Trepanger coming from Sulawesi, Timor and Kupang in search of beche de mer -sea slugs and sea cucumbers for Asian markets, who frequented these shores in large numbers at least as early as the C17th. While Abel Tasman had mapped the coastline on his way back from discovering Tasmania in 1642, it was English buccaneer, William Dampier, who is credited with being the first European to set foot in the area in 1688. He noted the extensive pearl beds of Roebuck Bay in his journal.

A visit to the well kept Japanese Cemetery
Pearl shell for buttons and other artefacts such as cutlery was in high demand. The pearls were merely a by -product.  Not long after, entrepreneurial younger sons of the English aristocracy came to seek their fortunes. They owned the pearl luggers and crewed them with  naked “skin divers” drawn from many different cultures –Malay, Indonesian, the Philippines and Japan, with the more unscrupulous ones also kidnapping aboriginal people, known as 'blackbirding' to dive for them under cruel conditions. The Japanese divers were largely drawn from a single village in southern Japan which had lost most of its adult men in a whale hunting tragedy. The Japanese divers were regarded as the best and with good money to be made, they soon invited their friends and relatives, creating a strong Japanese contingent in the nascent town. When the ragtag settlement was declared a town in 1883, Governor Broome was less than thrilled to have it named after him.
The Chinese Cemetery  next door looks a little forlorn.....
With so many pearl luggers now using the port as a base, the shallow beds were soon depleted and a new method of diving using a heavy diving helmet which enabled divers to go deeper, stay down longer and gather more shells, evolved. This was dangerous work and once again, the Japanese excelled at it. Broome became the “Queen City of the North” with over 300 pearl luggers at anchor in Roebuck Bay. 

...but it does have  an impressive gate
Between 1908 and 1912 Broome was struck by a series of cyclones and had to be rebuilt. The real disaster however, was the outbreak of World War 1. Fleet numbers halved as men rushed to enlist and the only demand for mother- of – pearl buttons was for soldiers’ uniforms. Still the industry built up again and by the 1920s, pearl shell attracted its highest prices ever, with Broome supplying 75% of world demand. World War Two proved even more devastating. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, people of Japanese descent were interred, even if they had never set foot in Japan and their ships were appropriated or burnt. Air raids on Darwin and Broome devastated the town and with the Japanese military having already taken Malaya, Singapore, Ambon and Timor and now only 300 miles from Broome, residents fled for their lives. The pearl industry was in tatters.

Modern take on typical Broome architecture
 Once again, Broome rose from the ashes. This time it was the cultured pearl, an industry once again pioneered by the Japanese, which led to its revival. It now supplies 80% of the world’s pearls and they are of the highest quality. Another threat, the birth of the plastic button in the 1950s could also have spelled its doom, but once again, Broome was able to reinvent itself, this time as a tourist destination. It’s rambunctious, polyglot never -say -die spirit remains very much part of the attraction.There is a pearl lugger museum in China Town and one of the pearl farms can be visited too, though I didn't do either on this occasion.

More traditional architecture is represented in the quaint Sun Picture Gardens which are over a hundred years old, the oldest outdoor cinema in the world

Today, my first port of call was to the Japanese Cemetery since it was the furthest away, but closer to the hostel. Unfortunately there was no English signage there but I have managed to glean a bit of information from various sources such as trip advisor. Some 919 people are buried here, many of them victims of drowning or the “bends” while diving for pearls, 33 of them dying of diver's paralysis in 1914 alone.  Many also perished in the cyclones which periodically ravaged Broome.

 A large stone obelisk records that the cyclones of 1887 and 1905 each claimed 140 lives.  Many of the original crumbling sandstone headstones have been replaced by black granite ones from Japan and the cemetery is beautifully maintained thanks to generous support from a Japanese shipping company owner, local people, visitors and a government grant. 

 The Malay, Muslim and Chinese Cemeteries next door to it, have not been so lucky, though the Chinese Cemetery does have a lovely gate. Not far away are lavish graves with Indian names, reflecting the generally diverse population. I didn’t see any Aboriginal ones, per se but their names would not be easily distinguishable from European ones in the large general cemetery. 

Chinese Influences -Charming Jimmy Chi Lane

  The Town Centre and particularly Chinatown, were my next port of call and I especially liked Jimmy Chi Lane which was full of charming little boutiques and cafes and had seating and history panels along its sides. Pearl and jewellery shops were strongly in evidence too, but alas, most places were closed, despite signs around the town saying, “All Day Breakfast” and “Broome is open for business.” Though the predominant building material is tin – light, cheap and easy to ship and to replace, it has a certain charm. It used be used as ballast in incoming ships, but as with the brightly coloured buildings in Valparaiso, what was once a necessity, has become a feature in its own right. Modern buildings use their own interpretation, but buildings such as the Sun Picture Gardens, now over 100 years old, epitomise the traditional style.  Curiously, unlike every other town in Australia, pedestrians have no precedence here, not even on crossings, so don’t say you haven’t been warned!
You had better believe it.  This rule applies all over Broome
I consoled myself with a mystery pie and a Greek Salad at the aeroplane -themed Runway CafĂ©, the only one which was still open, pleased to find one of the hostellers behind the counter. Today was an important day in Australia. The national football finals were on, which may have been one of the reasons why so may places were closed. Australians take their football seriously and by that I mean the peculiar mutation that involves an oval ball and field. Up to 18 people play on each side and the ball is allowed to be touched. This is the sum total of my knowledge of football, being a card carrying member of the anti -football league who could never understand what all the fuss was about. The bus driver listened to the game intently on his radio and was thrilled when the Western Bulldogs who hadn’t won a premiership since 1954, came out on top. Though I didn’t share the excitement, I was happy for him and them.  The TV was in high demand for replays that night, when I returned to the hostel, so I finished my book and called it a night.

One Hundred Years young. At least the cinema has a good excuse for being closed at this time of day - it only works at night
PS Sandflies are tiny midges that like to come out at dawn and dusk. At first you don't really notice them. Later you come up in red itchy weals, especially when you get warm. Some people are very allergic to them and fare worse. My arms just look like I have some kind of nasty disease. I have however, just learnt an excellent hack from the girls'  iPad - you dab toothpaste on them. It cools and stops the itch, so you don't end up making them worse by scratching.  It does look a bit weird though! It also works for mosquito bites. Aloe vera gel is even better and lasts longer.