Archive for November 2010
Roebuck Bay, Broome – arrived 10th October
17 59 51.90 S
122 13 82.10 E
The Boat is on a mooring in Roebuck Bay. We have been staying in a hotel-cum-resort just outside town, surrounded by acres of lush tropical vegetation and bush, and are enjoying the luxury of lots of running water, a clean loo, and plenty of rest.
I’ve been seriously remiss about writing for several reasons: for one, exploring the area has been too much fun and taking (and sorting) photos of the astonishing scenery has taken up too much time. Also, internet access has been rather a trial; one could lose the will to live waiting for pages to download – and that’s when one isn’t being timed-out. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to upload any photographs because of this. When we get to Perth I’ll do so, and provide links with the next blog post.
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We remained in Thomas Bay (16 28 58.10 S – 122 52 86.50 E) – 5th October only one night and left for Beagle Bay mid-morning in order to catch a favourable tide.
While bringing the anchor up I happened to look down and saw a miniature octopus next to my bare foot. It was about 3” across and almost exactly the pale beige colour of the teak. It was also looking rather flattened – understandably – as it must have come up with the chain and got flipped onto the deck with some force. I finished raising and securing the anchor, by which time the creature was crawling feebly along the hot, dry wood toward a nearby bit of shade. Bending over, hand already outstretched to pick the poor thing up and return it to the water, I suddenly thought, ‘Hang on a minute – we’re in Australia…’, and went to get the heavy fish-handling gloves we keep in the cockpit. Hurrying back, I pulled them on and was picking the octopus up when a few electric blue rings appeared on its skin and I just about jumped out of mine when they did.
It seems the blue rings only appear when the animals are agitated, though the literature omits to make this clear. Presumably the shock of hitting the deck must have stunned it, which would explain why they didn’t appear before. Paranoia obviously has survival value.
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Beagle Bay – 6th, 7th, 8th October
16 53 51.50 S
122 29 59.10 E
We spent three nights here. There were high wind warnings along that part of the coast and hand steering had been tiring enough for The Captain – who did most of it – during calm weather. We anchored well out from shore, because anchorages in the bay are rather exposed and there’s a large tidal range. The anchor dragged a bit so we let out more chain, after which it held like a rock through the next 2 days and nights of wind and chop and strong tidal currents which had the boat facing a different direction every few hours.
On trying to raise anchor on the morning of the 9th we found out why it had held so well: the chain had wrapped itself around something and we were well stuck. Always the pessimist, I was already envisioning having to don scuba gear and dive to untangle the wretched thing, and began calculating how long a full tank would last if I were working hard at that depth. But The Captain began steering the boat in a circle around the point where the chain entered the water and, luckily, he’d picked the right direction first time. After we’d slowly motored around almost 360° the chain broke free and I was able to bring it up with only a few nasty grinding noises.
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James Price Point – 9th October
17 32 13.90 S
122 08 07.50 E
We arrived at this anchorage mid-afternoon, to find it occupied by what looked like a pair of miniature drilling platforms and an official-looking vessel, from which we were sternly advised by radio that a 2 mile exclusion zone had been set up around the area. Since there was no time to reach the next anchorage, we headed further along the shore only until there were no more warning buoys and pulled in, muttering rebelliously. The weather was calm, which was as well because we were completely exposed.
We discovered much later that James Price Point is the proposed location for a new natural gas processing plant. The various viewpoints on the issue make interesting – albeit depressing – reading. Western Australia’s Premier says it’s “an unremarkable stretch of coastline” well suited to development; mining companies are positively drooling to get their hands on the vast mineral and petroleum resources in the Kimberley; environmentalists and a large proportion of the public are raising fierce objections – and for excellent reasons – but it’s unlikely they will be successful in getting the project stopped because during the time we’ve been in Broome I’ve already seen three more platforms being slowly towed north along the coast.
It took less time than we had anticipated to get from James Price Point to Broome the next morning, so there was still a bit of current running when we arrived in Roebuck Bay. We hung about until the slack tide before entering the bay and picked up the mooring without trouble. Huge sighs of relief from us both, after which The Captain immediately went to sleep.
He had intended that we stay aboard for approximately a week to rest and get the boat in order, then find a place to stay on shore while waiting for The Boat to be hauled and trucked to Perth. This plan had to be changed because, for some reason, our huge mooring buoy kept dragging under the boat. This may have been caused by the cut-away shape of The Boat’s hull combined with the strong, swirling tidal streams in Roebuck Bay, because none of the other moored vessels seemed to have the problem. First there would be loud thumping sounds as the buoy came alongside and banged against the hull for a while. Then the boat would lurch as the buoy went under the keel, where it would stay for a while before making the boat lurch again as it banged and bobbed up on the other side, gaily decorated with the red anti-fouling paint its rope harness had scraped off our hull. Although The Boat was secure, nothing we could do solved the problem and it was driving us nuts. Time to get off the boat.
That raised the next issue: there’s nowhere to safely leave a dinghy for any length of time in Roebuck Bay or on the other side of Gantheaume Point at Cable Beach. The tides are enormous, there’s no yacht club and no security. There’s talk of setting up a boat-taxi service next year, but that was of no use to us. There was the possibility that we might be able to leave the dinghy at a secure yard belonging to Paspaley, the pearling company that will haul the boat, but in the end we begged a ride to shore – at short notice – on one of the small vessels they use to service their pearling fleet. The man with whom we had been dealing, who is an unusually efficient and pleasant fellow, met us at the commercial deep water dock and drove us to the place at which we’re staying.
This is called Habitat Resort, and consists of individual units and pavilions in a tropical garden filled with palms, exotic trees, ginger plants and giant plumeria bushes bright with flowers. The grounds are also densely planted with specimens of the native vegetation, which attracts local wildlife: wallabies, blue-tongued skinks and other lizards, frogs, geckos, possums, pheasant coucal and many other birds – mostly honey-eaters. The kind gardener supplies us with more ripe papayas and lady-finger bananas than we can eat, and I was able to find a mango farm nearby from where I buy freshly picked mangoes at a more reasonable price than those sold in the grocery stores.
The weather has been very warm and humid – never less than 35° and usually around 37° during the day – though the nights are slightly cooler. We’re at the cusp between the Dry and Wet seasons and during the time we’ve been here a few heavy downpours during thunderstorms have already brought out new leaves and blossoms on trees that were bare when we arrived.
Now to Broome itself….
Modern Broome is a strange, isolated township, poised between the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean and the glowing red Pindan soils unique to the Dampier Peninsula, and it has a history as brutal as it has been brief. The first settlement of the area was a short-lived attempt at grazing sheep in the 1860s. This was followed in the 1870’s by the establishment of very temporary pearling facilities in Roebuck Bay, which consisted of depot camps used by pearlers based on Cossack and Thursday Islands.
On 27 November 1883, the Governor of Western Australia, Sir Frederick Napier Broome, announced that there would be ‘a Townsite on the North Western point of Roebuck Bay hereafter to be known and distinguished as Broome.’ Broome had not named it himself; the Surveyor General, John Forrest, had named it after him. In fact, the governor didn’t even want to be associated with the settlement since at this time Broome consisted of nothing more than a few pearlers, some pearling luggers, several shanties and some local Aborigines. In 1888 one visitor to the settlement described it: ‘The only water was a native well…The Mangrove swamps were full of mosquitoes, and high up on the sand hills a few struggling camps were pitched.’
Two years later everything had changed. Because of volcanic activity in the Arafura Sea, the submarine telegraph cable between Java and Darwin was rerouted through Broome. It came to shore in 1889 at Cable Beach. The Cable House (now the Courthouse) was erected at this time as an office for the telegraph operators. It is said – perhaps apocryphally – that the building itself was actually meant for Kimberley in South Africa and somehow ended up in Broome on the edge of the Kimberley in Australia. In any case, when it arrived the town had no wharf and the pieces had to be carted over the mudflats by Chinese labourers. The town grew rapidly, driven both by pearling and because the port facilities were used by the pastoralists who were settling the harsh interior. The population of the town was seriously cosmopolitan – Malays, Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, Europeans and Aborigines – and many of the people living here now boast a wonderfully varied ancestry.
Initially, it was only the pearl shell from the giant oyster species Pinctada maxima that was sought after. This was used to make mother-of-pearl buttons, handles for cutlery, handles of walking sticks and inlay for expensive furniture, mirrors, fans and other luxury articles. Occasional pearls were found, but those were just a valuable bonus. Pearl divers were always needed, and master pearlers had no compunction about kidnapping local Aborigines and forcing them into virtual slavery as divers. Inevitably, the death toll was very high. Without the benefit of modern underwater equipment, the divers were forced to dive again and again, resurfacing only when they ran out of breath. In the early years, the mortality rate was greatly compounded by the number of sharks which cruised the muddy estuaries where the pearl shells were found.
By 1887 most of the Broome pearling fleet was equipped with canvas suits, copper helmets and boots, and rubber air hoses. Nevertheless, hundreds of young Japanese divers died, either from the bends or by drowning, and many more were left grotesquely crippled and unable to earn a living. The dead were buried in Broome’s beautifully maintained Japanese Cemetery, which dates back to the very early pearling days. A large stone obelisk in the cemetery recalls those who were drowned at sea in the 1908 cyclone. The cyclones of 1887 and 1935 each caused the deaths of at least 140 men.
By 1904, Broome supplied as much as eighty per cent of the world’s pearl shell, and more than 400 luggers operated out of Broome. In the lay-off season there would be over 3000 Asian divers in the town, and Chinatown was crowded with pubs, gambling dens, eating houses and brothels. During this time Broome gained the reputation described by an old pearler when he wrote: ‘Broome in its early days was probably the most unique town in Australia. It was an affluent, sinful and tolerant community, in which the Clergy’s frequent references to Sodom and Gomorrah were regarded as appropriate tributes to civic progress, rather than warnings of future divine retribution.’ This was Broome’s Golden Age, and the master pearlers became fabulously wealthy. It is said they changed their white suits twice daily because of the red dust that blew into town from the surrounding countryside, and had them laundered in Singapore, which also supplied most of Broome’s fresh food.
The economy of the Broome collapsed with the outbreak of World War I in 1914, which coincided with the arrival of over 250 fully laden luggers in port. Contracts with overseas buyers were rendered null and void in the event of war, so the pearls and pearl shells could not be paid for. After the war, recovery was slow. By the early 1930’s the industry had been effectively taken over by the Japanese, and by 1939 the pearl industry was severely depressed and there were only 50 luggers operating in the waters around Broome.
The importance of the Japanese to the Broome economy was highlighted when Japan entered the Second World War in 1941: pearl shell collecting ceased completely as the entire Japanese population of Broome was interned. Broome was designated as a primary aircraft refuelling point during the evacuation from Java and was attacked by Japanese aircraft in 1942, though by this time the civilian population had already been evacuated.
After World War II the pearl industry revived, though buttons were now being made of plastic. Not mother-of-pearl but pearls, cultured in a process learnt from Kokichi Mikimoto and modified to suit the Pinctada maxima oyster, funded Broome’s renaissance. The origins of the cultured pearl industry are celebrated in a memorial which depicts the three key people involved: T. Kuribayashi, Keith Dureau and H. Iwaki. It stands in town, opposite a rather spooky memorial to the divers themselves.
A few years ago Broome might as well have been renamed McAlpine, because Lord Alistair McAlpine so dominated the townscape and the economy of the town that some say it was virtually his personal fiefdom. To be fair, Lord McAlpine converted this rough pearling port into an attractive town (for the most part) though the older locals say it lost most of its unique frontier character during the transformation. He was responsible for the beautiful trees and other plantings which line the streets, he restored many of the most interesting Master Pearlers’ houses, and built a luxurious and opulent holiday resort at Cable Beach. This attracted other investors and the Cable Beach area is now the ‘posh’ part of Broome.
The rest of Broome is what could be kindly describe as ‘mixed’. Chinatown is picturesque and the main tourist streets are pleasant; there are some fancy hotels along the shoreline, but buildings on the side streets are often derelict and the famous Streeter’s Jetty is crumbling and encroached upon by mangrove thickets. There are slick modern suburbs but many of the houses adjacent to the town centre, especially those in the Aboriginal areas, are old and surrounded by a dispiriting combination of dusty ground, broken down cars and household appliances, litter and decrepit furniture, all interspersed with the vicious glitter of broken glass.
And that’s all, really. We’re waiting for The Man with the Big Truck to arrive from Perth to coincide with the next Spring tides around the 8th November. Then the boat will be hauled, the mast taken off, and we’ll fly to Perth while the boat follows at a more sedate pace.
This blog entry is long enough, so I’ll stop here. More shortly and – with luck – the photos of the astonishing scenery here.