Bran Nue Broome: Reflections of a southern tourist

Broome, in Western Australia, is a magical place with a vibrant Aboriginal, Greek, Japanese past and presence

Western Australia’s far north tourist mecca, Broome. Full of surprises, but not always the ones you expect. You might be walking quietly along one of Broome’s main streets, or cooling off in Johnny Chi Lane in Chinatown, and suddenly the sky explodes over your head.

No, it’s not the end of the world, it’s just the Qantas Boeing 737, arriving at Broome International Airport – right next to the central business district. Broome doesn’t look like a frontier town any more, though some of the original corrugated iron buildings are still there, like the open-air Sun Pictures in Carnarvon Street.

Luckily, the new buildings in town have kept to Broome-style. ‘High-rise’ is two-storey. Broome is booming on the tourist dollar, and now has some of the most expensive real estate in Australia. But the real town is still there, and many residents, locally-born and southern expatriates, wouldn’t live anywhere else.

In words of the seven Pigram Brothers, Broome’s noted musicians and songwriters, Now that the mangoes are ripe/Can’t hack the pace of this city life/Soon I’ll be dreamin’ in Broome… Most people’s first thought about Broome is pearls, and a long and exotic history it is. Among the first of the ‘pearl masters’ was the Paspalis family, led by Theodosis Paspalis, who came to Western Australia from the Greek island of Castellorizo in 1919.

Theodosis’s son Nicholas settled in Broome, and changed the family name to Paspaley. Today, Paspaley Pearls are almost synonomous with Broome – but don’t expect to find any bargains in Broome pearls – you’re talking thousands of dollars for the real South Seas pearls.

Most of today’s pearling industry is cultured pearls, and imported freshwater pearls are probably the best value for money. Broome’s multi-ethnic population has long been well-known, from historic films such as Frank Hurley’s Pearl of the South Seas (1927) and Lovers and Luggers (1937) to current smash-hits such as Jimmy Chi’s Bran Nue Dae and SBS’s Broome-based series The Circuit, starring Aaron Pederson and Gary Sweet. And multi-ethnicity is not without its trials.

In 2009, the release in Broome of the documentary film The Cove about the slaughter of dolphins in the Japanese city of Taiji caused a local furore. Taiji was the birthplace of many of Broome’s pearl divers, and enjoyed sister city status with Broome. The Japanese Cemetery, an important heritage and tourist location, was desecrated by vandalism, the City Council cancelled its special relationship with Taiji, and the Shinju Matsuri Festival Board cancelled the float parade.

Many descendents of Japanese pearl divers were hurt and offended by these actions, as well as residents of varying ethnicities who had put weeks of work into their floats. It seems that the Shinju Matsuri (Festival of the Pearl) is, however, going full steam ahead for 2010, in late August and early September.

You’ll need to go a few days before the Festival’s opening on August 27 to see the Staircase to the Moon, an occasional, magical phenomenon when the rising moon shines over the mangrove mud flats at low tide, creating a staircase effect. You can watch it – free – looking over Roebuck Bay from the lawns in front of the Mangrove Resort, although a glass or two of champagne helps.

The Mangrove provides a small group of musicians, and a didjeridoo player who ‘calls up’ the rising moon. Broome is a great place for you – and your kids – to be educated, happily, about Aboriginal life and achievement, as a contrast to the negative and painful stories we hear so often.

You can start with the markets, at Town Beach or at the old Courthouse, to see examples of art and craft work, and some of the samples seen at the markets will lead you to galleries and workshops operating on a bigger scale. Nagula Jarndu (Saltwater Woman) Designs produces screen prints of exciting designs and made-up clothing and table linen, and the Old Broome Lock Up Gallery often has Aboriginal artists working on site.

A half-day tour of Broome will introduce you to many of the art locations around town, and the well-informed tour guides are a great source of local knowledge. Broome is the gateway to the Kimberley region of Western Australia, and the number of tours which can be taken from Broome is legion.

A day trip to Cape Leveque is enlightening. It involves visits to four effective Aboriginal-owned enterprises; an aquaculture farm, two flourishing communities at Beagle Bay and Lombadina, and Cape Leveque itself, where Kooljaman is an Aboriginal-owned wilderness resort. Broome isn’t just for tourists. Its permanent population is more than 10,000, and as well as tourism, its main industries are fishing, cultured pearls and cattle.

It’s got a full range of services in administration, law, health and education – including a campus of the University of Notre Dame Australia, which has a number of courses to degree standard. And the Nirrumbuk Aboriginal Corporation runs a number of training courses through Djaringo Pty Ltd, including business, horticulture, environmental health, tourism, mining and governance.

Broome has wonderful restaurants and venues, including the historic Roebuck Hotel. The Pearl Luggers is a great place for concerts and displays, right in Chinatown, with two restored luggers to explore. If you’re lucky, you’ll hear the Pigram Brothers at the Luggers­… if they’re not on tour.

One of their best-loved songs, Salt Water Cowboy, deals with trials and pride of the deep-sea divers: This ol’ copper hat is aching my shoulders/These leaden boots don’t need any spurs/Stand back, you shallow water man/ Let a deep-sea diver through…

Dr Gwenda Beed Davey is a research fellow at Deakin University in Melbourne, in the Cultural Heritage Centre for Asia and the Pacific.