“Slip into Broometime” is a well-worn aphorism that captures the tropical charm of BROOME, clinging to the peninsula overhanging Roebuck Bay. This is the western reach of the rugged and remote Kimberley and despite Broome’s numerous tourist facilities something of a “Wild West” air prevails. It’s a good 2000km from here to the nearest city of any size and the town has more in common with the deepest Outback than it does with downtown Perth.
Broome began its life as a pearling town. Easily collected pearl shell heaped along nearby Eighty Mile Beach led to the northwestern “pearl rush” of the 1880s, initially enabled by the enslaved Aborigines. Later, indentured workers from Asia sought the shell in ever-greater depths below the waves, and Broome originated as a camp on sheltered Roebuck Bay where the pearl luggers laid up during the cyclone season.
After a violent and raucous beginning, the port finally achieved prosperity thanks to the nacre-lined oyster shells, or mother-of-pearl. By 1910, eighty percent of the world’s pearl shell came from Broome, and a rich ethnic mix and a rigidly racially stratified society had developed. Each season one in five divers died, several more became paralyzed and, as Broome’s cemeteries steadily filled, only one shell in five thousand produced a perfect example of the silvery pearls unique to this area.
Stagnation then rebuilding followed both world wars, after the second of which the Japanese – masters in the secret art of pearl culturing – warily returned and invested in pearl-farming ventures. Things improved with the sealing of the coastal highway from Perth in the early 1980s and the philanthropic interest of English businessman Alistair McAlpine, who led the old town’s tasteful development and refurbishment, using its oriental mystique and pearling history as inspiration. Today a mining boom is well underway and Broome is expected to double in population in the next twenty years.