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I have seen only a tiny portion of this immense continent–  a small part of Victoria, a stretch of Queensland from Cairns north to the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree rainforest, a larger part of Tasmania.  During the last two weeks I have added an area of the northwest to my geographic portfolio– the Kimberley.

It is as large as Germany with a permanent population of about 45,000.  Paved highways are the exception rather than the rule, so when you travel on one you see virtually everyone moving along the same direction in the outback.  The region was featured in the film “Australia,” which took some hits for its script and direction but not for its scenery.  The Kimberley is spectacular.   At this time of year, it is also very hot.  The day before my departure from the region, I woke in the hottest place in Australia–  Fitzroy Crossing.  It was 46 degrees C, or 115 degrees Fahrenheit.

My journey began with a long flight directly across the country to Perth, then north to the town of Broome, which is only 17 degrees south of the equator.  The airport is a casual affair, looking like something out of Africa rather than Australia.  When I asked about getting a taxi to the Broome Motel, a burly man who seemed to be in charge of the local transport said he would take me for $5, but I could save myself the bill and walk.

It was dark and I was tired and I didn’t want to get lost.  Five dollars seemed a small price to pay for being delivered to my bed.  The Broome Motel is handy to the airport and the old part of the city, now known as Chinatown.  The resorts are located in the more desirable area of Cable Beach, named after the underwater telegraph cable that was laid from Broome to Singapore in 1889.  It was a significant event in Australian life, bringing news from England to Sydney and Melbourne in a matter of hours rather than weeks.

The town owes its existence to the discovery of pearl oysters in 1861.  It is a town built on buttons.  Before the advent of plastics, people of quality demanded long-lasting, beautiful buttons cut from mother-of-pearl shells.  The pearls were rare, a bonus to the lucrative shell trade but hardly the source of income they have since become.  Today, Broome is a tourist town, capitalizing on its wonderful weather during the Australian winter,  its beautiful beach resorts and other tourist attractions that have been added to the mix over the years– camel rides, a Crocodile Farm, star gazing etc.  The profit from resort rooms has undoubtedly eclipsed the trade in buttons and pearls over the years.  It’s the new economy.

Thanks to the high tides in the area, (second only to those in the Bay of Fundy), the early days of gathering oyster shells was easy. When the early pickings were exhausted, aboriginals were enlisted to do the difficult work of diving.  “Blackbirders” were engaged to enslave the natives.  Women and children were valued because they were compliant.

The invention of diving suits changed everything, since the aboriginals refused to be confined inside the claustrophobic outfits.  Asians from Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines were enlisted to do the dangerous work. Ultimately, Japanese divers proved themselves in the depths, but the cost was great.  There are 919 divers buried in the Japanese cemetery.  Many more lost their lives at sea.  In its heyday, there were 400 pearling boats lined up along the shores of Roebuck Bay.

The Depression and World War I hit the industry hard, but World War II and the invention of plastics did it in completely.   On March 3, 1942, Broome was strafed by Japanese fighters.  Nine Zero fighters swooped in and destroyed sixteen Allied amphibious planes (flying boats) which had just landed, and seven planes on the runway.  Over a hundred people died.  The town was evacuated in the expectation of a Japanese invasion.  Most of the pearl “luggers” were pulled up on shore and burned so they wouldn’t fall into the hands on the invading force.  The industry never recovered.

My visit falls at the end of the tourist season, before the “wet,” when lightning storms and cyclones add drama to the skies.  These days it seems a lazy place, populated by backpackers and aboriginals and baby-boomer tourists like me.  There are double-decker bus tours, sea kayaking trips, trike flights, sunrise and sunset camel rides,a  pearl farm tour and micro breweries to visit.  There is the sunset (Earth rise) over Cable Beach.  That is not to be missed and it is absolutely free.

On a tour of the town I am amazed at the size of the place considering its minuscule permanent population of around fourteen thousand.  Many of the new developments are very expensive, which suggests a large number of second homes.  It is hard to believe that the good citizens of Broome can afford million dollar properties.    It has been many years since the zoo was displaced to make room for development.  Now, it appears the Crocodile Farm is heading for the outskirts of town.

Apparently, saltwater crocs don’t make the best neighbours.  Its a jaws thing.  Stay tuned.  There is much more to come.

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