History has it that William Dampier, master of the Roebuck, was the first European to visit Broome back in 1700. He came ashore in an unsuccessful attempt to replenish his ships water supply and catch an Aborigine. The poor native they caught resisted and unfortunately they shot him.
Before 1890 Broome was a small outpost, but this all changed when the submarine telegraph cable to Asia, which ran via Darwin, was rerouted via Broome. Before the cable arrived the town was a rough shanty town, a collection of tents and a handful of pearlers and their pearling luggers.
From 1890 the pearling boom began. The population continued to grow with a large influx of Chinese, Malays, Japanese, Filipinos, Europeans and Aborigines. Before 1890 pearl divers free dived, returning to the surface for air at the last minute. It was a dangerous way to make a living, made worse by the fact that the best pearling grounds were generally to be found at the mouths of estuaries where most of the sharks were also to be found. The industry was made safer by the introduction of the canvas diving suits, copper helmets, rubber air hoses and boots.
Up until just before World War I when pearling was at its height, over 400 pearling luggers operated out of the port. During the off season, the population of over 3000 Asians in Broome and nearby Chinatown brought a brisk business to the local pubs, gaming houses and brothels. All this came to an end after the start of WWI because of a lack of overseas buyers of the pearl shell. After the war, the recovery was slow. Japanese had taken over the work as crew and divers. When World War II started, there were only about 50 luggers in the fleet and the town was still severely in a state of depression. This state was further worsened when all the Japanese population was interned. In 1942 the town was attacked by Japanese Zero fighters which destroyed 16 flying boats and 7 aircraft on the Broome airstrip. It’s estimated that about 70 people were killed in the raid. Another raid occurred again on March 20th 1942.
After the war, the pearling industry slowly started to recover. But the romantic days of gaff rigged ketches known as pearling luggers and pearl divers had started to disappear. In their place came cultured pearls. The much sort after pearl shell which was in demand for making buttons had been replaced with plastic buttons.
But the romance of the pearling industry still lives on in Broome. Today the town is one of Australia’s most popular, must see, and must visit holiday destinations. It’s up there with other favourites such as Byron Bay, Noosa Heads, Port Douglas and Cairns. It’s a “cool” place to visit.
I drove into town (known as Chinatown) and parked opposite the famous Streeters jetty. Streeters was the firm who originally built the jetty, the warehouses to store the shell and the Roebuck Hotel that I passed by on the way in. Mangrove trees have now grown up around the jetty at the back of the town where the pearling fleet used to moor. I walked out along the jetty, where there were a couple of small fibreglass yachts tied up, the tide having gone out leaving them sitting there in the mud. I walked to the end but mangrove trees had blocked the view of Roebuck Bay. I walked back to Hewie, where a guy stood admiring him.
“You didn’t drive this all the way from the east coast did you?” he asked with a sense of disbelief.
“I sure did. I just arrived here in Broome,” I told him.
“I don’t believe you. You sent it over on the back of a truck.”
“No way,” I told him. But he failed to believe I’d driven it over. I started the motor and then opened the bonnet and showed him the little old side-valve engine purring away. He looked at it in more disbelief.
“Impossible!” he said.
“Truly, I did”
“I still don’t believe you. You sent it over on a truck. This thing couldn’t make it all that way!”
“I’ve driven here at an average speed of 60 to 70 kilometres per hour. Any car will go anywhere if you drive it slowly and nurse it along. It’s a bit like when turbo chargers first came out in race cars. The cars with turbo chargers always took the lead ahead of the non turbo charged cars. But in many cases the turbo charged cars blew up their engines before the end of the race. The non turbo drivers soon realised that all they needed to do was just stay in the race and wait for their turbo rivals to just drop out and they’d in the end win. Slow and steady generally wins the race,” I told him.
“But I still don’t believe you,” he said, as he shook his head and walked away.
I walked through town past Sun Pictures, the open air cinema, and visited the pearl showroom, Pearling Luggers, with two beautifully restored pearling luggers sitting on the hard with their gaff rigged sails set and towering over the building. I stopped by the Roebuck Hotel for a glass of light beer before heading out to the famous Cable Beach. If anything is engraved into my memory of Broome it is the colours of Cable Beach. The surrounding desert was a dark red brown. Above the beach was a kiosk and restaurant, surrounding this was a bright green grassy area. The gardeners who maintained it did an excellent job. The green cool grass looked inviting. The first thing I did was to take my shoes off and walk on it. I then sat down and lay on it. It felt and looked so cool and refreshing in contrast to the hot red desert. Down below was Cable Beach. The bright blue sky met the horizon. The sea was a dark blue except just where the ocean becomes shallow near the shore where the water is a light shiny green over the yellow sand. Like many other people enjoying this pleasant little oasis I found a coconut tree for shade, made myself comfortable on the soft moist grass, opened up my novel, read for a while then fell asleep in the heat of the day.
Cable Beach was still there when I woke up. Others around me were still asleep and no one was looking at me thinking what a lazy bastard I was sleeping in the middle of the day.
I drove around the corner to the Cable Beach Caravan and Camping Ground and checked in. It was mid October and the park was about half full. As I drove in someone called out “Hey Hewie!” I looked around and there were some old friends I’d made in Darwin, Tom and Colleen. Colleen looked over me and Hewie and shook her head.
“You made it! How did you do it?” she asked.
“It took me six days from Darwin. How long did it take you?” I asked.
“Three, and that was bad enough. Our air-conditioning wasn’t working very well so it was a bloody hot and uncomfortable trip. I would have died if I had have come with you!” she said.
“Come on! It wasn’t that bad,” I said. But Colleen didn’t agree, she had a spinal problem and found it difficult sitting up on long trips.
“Congratulations mate! I thought about you along the way. I knew you’d make it” said Tom as he handed me an ice cold can of beer.
Tom and Colleen were like many other recently retired Australians who’d decided to buy a caravan, a four wheel drive, say farewell to the kids and grandchildren and take off to see Australia. Tom was a retired builder. After a visit to the doctor he was told that he had terminal anthracemia and silicosis and didn’t have long to live. So they sold the house, put the money in the bank, bought a caravan, then hooked it into the back of his mid 80s model Toyota Landcruiser and hit the road. The doctor told him that he’d have to cut out the drinking and smoking, but I think that advice went in one ear and out the other. Whenever I saw Tom he had a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
I headed into town the next morning in search of a place to set up a temporary office for a day or maybe two. The web site www.orientbeach.com from which I make a living, urgently needed some updates. The town had no lack of internet cafés. I checked around as I needed a computer that had a copy of Microsoft’s web publishing software, Frontpage or a copy of Microsoft Office Professional which has Frontpage as a part of the software suite. Most of the internet cafés in town had a copy of MS Office at least on one of their machines but none had Office Pro or just a copy of Frontpage. With no Frontpage computer available I negotiated with one café to allow me bring in my PC and connect it to their network. They agreed, insisting that I used my own monitor. The café was upstairs with about 50 terminals. By 10 o’clock that morning the terminals were nearly all in use with people checking their email and playing games – the place was air-conditioned- it was about 34 C and about 100% humidity outside. No wonder the place was so popular.
I lugged in my PC and connected up the keyboard, mouse and monitor and then I realised that I’d forgotten the plug-in network adapter. I went back downstairs and around the corner to a computer shop which sold me a network card for $5. Returning to the café I took the back off the box, found a spare slot and installed the card. I was ready - so I thought. When I switched it on it refused to boot. Furthermore I could smell electrical smoke. Something was burning – it was the power supply. I switched the system off and took the old power supply out and headed back around to the computer shop. They didn’t have a power supply to suit my machine.
“There’s a guy a few kilometres out of town in a little industrial area who’ll have one. Go out and see him,” said the technician at the counter.
I drove out there and found the place. They had just what I needed. Back at the internet café I slid the new power supply into the slot and tightened up the screws. When I switched the machine on it again failed to boot and smoke started to come out of the new power supply. I pulled the plug and loaded the PC back into Hewie and headed back to the computer shop. He took a look at it and came to the conclusion that there was a problem with the motherboard.
“Trash it and get a whole new PC” he said.
Back in town I found a small communications office that had Microsoft Frontpage installed on one of their PCs. I took it for the afternoon and made the updates to my web site. When I left Ballina, I thought that most of my problems would be keeping Hewie on the road. Little did I think that trying to live in cyberspace would be more testing. Unlike the PC, Hewie had given a few problems but at least he hadn’t packed it in altogether – bloody computers!
I was in Broome for a week before heading south to Port Hedland. I broke the long journey of 600 kilometres from Broome to Port Hedland about halfway at a caravan and camping ground called Eighty Mile Beach, 40 kilometres south of the solitary outpost of Sandfire Roadhouse. I was expecting primitive conditions but found the opposite. The camp ground was neatly kept with hot showers and toilets and wait for it – a shop that sold fresh food. It even had an internet kiosk. I settled in for the night in one their small rooms, called a dongalow. From a distance they appear like an old shipping container divided up into small rooms, but they are small rooms with just enough room for a bed, a small refrigerator, table, TV and an air-conditioner. I headed down to the camp shop. They advertised pizza on their menu. I suggested to the young woman behind the counter that it was probably frozen pizza and they’d just put it in the micro-wave oven. She was very indignant that I’d suggest that they’d serve a frozen pizza.
“Certainly not. All the ingredients are fresh. Nothing is frozen. We make the dough ourselves,” she said.
“I’m very sorry, but whenever I’ve ordered something this far out in the Never Never, it’s always been frozen. Please accept my apology, I’ll have a Napolitano, with plenty of anchovies, thank you” I told her.
The TV was a luxury that I hadn’t experienced such a luxury for many weeks. Normally I only watch the news and current affair programs. But I turned it on and was glued to any rubbish which came on. I lay on the bed, cracked open a can of beer ate my pizza and watched TV until I fell asleep.
Next morning I was up and away well before sun up, my next destination being Port Hedland 300 kilometres south. Just after sunrise, I passed two dead camels on the side of the road. What had happened I never did find out, but did they stink! I was going to turn back and get a photograph. Let’s face it, it’s not often that you see two dead camels on the side of the road. I took my foot off the accelerator and then realised how bad the smell really was. I put my foot down again and kept going.
I arrived at the iron ore loading and salt producing town of Port Hedland just before midday. Last time I was here was back in 1969 when I’d hitched up from Perth on my around Australia hitch-hiking trip. I remember the town as being primitive, The large scale mining and exportation of iron ore had just started. Up until the mid to late 60’s Port Hedland had been a small pearling and also a port town for the gold rich area of Marble Bar, about 300 kilometres inland. During my last visit, railways and port loading facilities were in the process of being built. Now it was all up and running, but when I arrived in the town, nothing as far as the buildings in the town had changed. The town appeared just like I remembered it back in 1969. Everything was and still is covered in the fine pink dust from the iron ore. Even the white feathers on the pigeons’ heads are pink.
I walked into the tourist information office to find that a tour of the port and iron ore loading facilities was just about to leave. I climbed aboard the bus for the tour. I asked the tour guide about the future of Port Hedland town centre. She said that the town centre was in the way of future expansion of the port facilities so BHP Billington wanted to move everyone out, demolish it and extend the port. Not a lot of people lived in the town. Most people lived in the new satellite city of South Hedland which has the largest shopping centre outside of Perth, so the locals told me.
From Port Hedland there are two ways to head down to Perth - the inland route or the coastal route. The coastal route via the Great North West Highway is 1761 kilometres and the inland route via Newman, Meekatharra, Mount magnet and Cue is 1660. I’d come up the coastal route back in 1969, so this time I decided on the inland route.
The next stop after leaving Port Hedland was the mining town of Newman, a 6 hour drive in Hewie. I set off from Port Hedland at 4.30 in the morning stopping half way at a roadhouse for fuel. About 200 kilometres from Newman I reached the Hammersley Range and a steady climb up through the Minjina Gorge, I thought I’d make it up in top gear but had to drop back to third for the last kilometre. This may seem unusual talking about going up a hill on the main highway around Australia but it was the first hill that I had to change back a cog since leaving Charters Towers. Just as I reached the top with a downhill run in view, Hewie started to splutter with another vapour lock. I thought for a minute that he wasn’t going to make it but once he made it to the top, I put my foot down and got the speedometre showing 45 MPH on a downhill run. This quickly cooled the engine down and the oil pressure returning to 50 PSI, quickly solving the vapour lock problem.
Newman is the mining town for the nearby Whaleback Mine which is now the largest open cut iron ore mine in the world. It is estimated that there are over 30 billion tonnes of iron ore in the Hammersley Range. A private railway hauls the ore from the mine into Port Hedland. The total yearly production of ore is in the vicinity of 30 million tonnes a year.
Once a closed company town, Newman was opened to the public back in 1981 and now welcomes visitors. Checking into the local campground, I bunkered down for the night in another dongalow. I turned on the air-conditioning, but it didn’t work. I went over to the ground office and they gave me a key to the dongalow next door. The air-conditioning worked but the mattress must have been about 30 years old and sagged in the middle. Easily solved, I moved the whole bed and mattress from the non air-conditioned room into the air- conditioned one and moved the old mattress out into the other room.
On the road again the next morning at 4.30am, I made a quick stop for a cup of coffee at a truck stop five kilometres south called Capricorn. Named Capricorn because it is where the tropic of Capricorn passes through. I thought to myself how the pleasures of a cooler clime lay not far away. The next stop was another truck stop at Coomerino for a steak sandwich. When I ordered the sandwich I jokingly mentioned to the lady behind the counter that I wanted it just like the truckies eat. She told me that I couldn’t use the word “truckie” as someone from some important government office had turned up and told her to get rid of any signs that used the word. Evidently she had a burger advertised called a “truckies’ burger”
“You’ve got to be joking,” I told her.
“No way, I’m serious! Whoever they were told me that they wanted to try to give truck drivers a better name.”
“Fair enough. I suppose it’s a bit like bikies to bikers and surfies to surfers. I personally hate the words, “indigenous” and “Aboriginal”. Both the words, indigenous especially, sound like they were invented in some government office over in Canberra. I much prefer blackfella and whitefella, both words have a sound of endearment attached to them, don’t you think?”
I sat there in the small restaurant and talked with a truckie - sorry, truck driver and his wife and two small daughters. They were on a run from Perth to Port Hedland, but he’d had stopped due to air in his fuel line. He was using the roadhouse compressor to pump the fuel through and was worried he’d burn the small compressor out before he could get the fuel line primed and back on the road again. I wished the luck and headed out to Hewie, a signpost ahead read.
Before leaving I opened the tool box and got out my small points file and gave the ignition points a clean before leaving on the four hour drive, south to Meekatharra
Meekatharra is an Aboriginal word for a place that the rain misses. I settled in for three nights here at the Commercial Hotel. The room was large with TV and fridge and faced onto the veranda overlooking the main street. The publican had just hired two new young women, very pretty fair haired German backpackers to do alternate shifts behind the bar. They were having trouble with the language, especially the way the locals spoke. But the contrast between them and the local graziers, cowboys, diesel fitters and miners was a contrast like chalk and charcoal. Furthermore the walls in the bar room hadn’t been painted for many years. But now, with the new young women behind the bar the place didn’t need painting, their beauty and white blonde hair made the whole place shine. And no doubt put a smile on many faces of the regular drinkers.
Much of the two days I spent at a small communications office working on my web site. None of their computers had Microsoft Office or Frontpage when I arrived. The woman who was in charge searched through a box of CD ROMs and found a trial copy of Frontpage, she installed it for me. It worked, so I spent two days in front of the cathode ray tube.
When I tried to leave the hotel early next morning, I almost couldn’t. The place was so well locked up I found it almost impossible to find my way out. I searched around for half an hour until I found a fire escape on the top floor which went down to the court yard at the back of the hotel. I wondered how I would have got out of the place if a fire had started in the middle of the night. Once in the court yard I found that the large exit gate was also locked. Furthermore Hewie was across the road in another large enclosed car park, with a seriously big lock, keeping out would be thieves. Fortunately a key on the bundle of keys on the key ring I was given on arrival fitted both locks. I finally arrived at Hewie only to find that someone had slid their hand down between the hood and the door, opened the car and gone through the glove box. Not to worry, there was nothing in there worth stealing.
I stopped at a garage on the way out and topped up with petrol. I also added a litre of water to the radiator as the last time I added water was back in Port Hedland. As I walked into the shop to pay I greeted a young Aboriginal who walked out the door and proceeded out onto the road heading south, like myself, but he was walking. Back on the road again I spotted him with his thumb out just a few hundred metres down the road. I stopped and moved all the junk off the passenger seat and managed to find room on top of my luggage for his bag.
“You’re the first car to come along. It must be my lucky day” he said.
“When I saw you walk out of the service station I thought top myself he’s hitching so I was expecting to see you on the road. Where are you headed?
“I’m headed for Cue. My name is Adrian, and yours?
“Kerry, where do you live, Meekatharra?”
“I live at Cue. I’ve just been up here for a couple of days to visit my grandmother. I caught the bus up, but thought I’d give hitch hiking a go coming back. This is the first time I’ve hitch hiked, if it’s as easy at this I’ll forget all about riding the bus again and just hitch hike,” he said.
“I used to hitch hike a lot when I was your age. So now I find it pretty hard to drive past a hitch hiker. I feel very guilty if I do. I’d say that hitch hiking is better now as there isn’t the number of hitch hikers on the road as there was twenty of thirty years ago. When I used to do it, you’d often walk to the end of the town only to find two or three other people also waiting for a lift in the same direction,” I said.
“When I told my grandmother that I was thinking about hitching home she thought it could be dangerous. You don’t know who you’re getting in with,” he told me.
“My parents said that to me when I was your age, now people are still saying it. I laugh when they say how it may have been all right years ago but these days hitching would be dangerous. As if there are more murderers, serial killers and crooks about these days per head of population. I always try to tell them that people are just the same today as they were yesterday. Most people are good in this world and would rather help someone than hurt them. That’s how I always used to think when I went on the road. Not once did I ever run into anyone that I thought was going to hurt me. My biggest worry was that I’d get a lift with a bad driver who’d have an accident and I’d be killed or injured.” I continued to rave on, then looked around to find that he was sound asleep. I suppose we all talk to ourselves at times.
He was still asleep when we arrived at Cue. Now nearly a ghost town with a population of around 300 people, Cue was once a wealthy gold mining town with a population of over 10,000 people. The gracious sandstone architecture of the buildings is a reminder of the old days. Apart from a general store most of the shops on the main street are now empty. It was Sunday morning. There wasn’t one car in the main street. Just one solitary gentleman in his mid fifties stood up from a seat in the gazebo on the grassy medium strip that runs down the middle of the main street. He stood there watching as I parked, then came over to greet us. With one eye tightly fixed on Hewie’s number plate, he said.
“You drove that thing all the way over from the east coast!?”
“That was just what I was expecting you to say,” I told him as I opened the bonnet for him to see the motor ticking over.
“You came all the way with that little engine, look at the size of it. Norman Kempton is my name, yours….”
He went on to tell me that he was on his way to Karrathra, a city near Port Hedland, to deliver a car and had stopped here and booked into the local bed and breakfast for the night.
“I spoke with the manager of the B&B and told him I was going out for a walk down town and have dinner at the pub. I came back just after nine o’clock and the whole place was all locked up, I couldn’t get back in again. I searched all over the place for an open window and knocked and bashed on the front and back door, but no one came to let me in. There is only myself and another couple staying there so you’d think someone would have heard me. I ended up having to sleep in my car” he said. I proceeded to tell him how I was locked in up at Meekatharra last night……
“Come back to the B&B. They should be open by now. Be my guest for a cup of tea. They locked me out, so the least they could do is provide a friend with a cup of tea. You’ll like the place. It’s the old Murchison Hotel. Someone spent around $1.5 million dollars doing the place up, then went broke, so I heard. The new owners bought the place at auction for a song,” he said.
At the hotel, now a B&B, it was obvious that cash wasn’t spared in the hotel restoration. We sat and drank tea with the other two guests and two other people who we thought were the two owners. But they were only the owners friends who were managing the B&B while the real owners were absent.
I ‘d parked Hewie out the back of the hotel and on the way, had passed a caravan just near the back door. This is where the temporary managers were sleeping. It was obvious why Norm couldn’t get back into B&B the night before. He was bashing on the front door while the managers were in their caravan out the back. Norm wasn’t a happy camper. His room for the night that he didn’t get the chance to sleep in was $75 and when he asked for a discount due to the fact that he was looked out, they refused, and made him pay the full amount.
It was 10 o’clock before I hit the road again. That afternoon we (Hewie and I) arrived in the town of Mount Magnet as the speedometre on Hewie rolled over to 20,000 miles. I’d come a distance of 6,777 miles since Ballina. Mount Magnet has a population of about 1000 people and like Cue was once a gold mining boom town. Today the town survives on being a service town for the numerous small mines in the area, which are kept alive by the presently high price of gold. The town is also a service town for the surrounding pastoral area which boasts the biggest sheep stations in Western Australia. I spent the night in a dongalow at a miner’s camp a couple of kilometres out of town. As I drove into the camp I was greeted with a sign warning that poisonous snakes had been seen in the area. I didn’t see any but wondered where they were, as I walked to the shower block and loaded the car in the pitch black darkness, without a torch, the next morning.
That night an electrical storm and dark ominous clouds appeared, giving the hope that the rain was going to pour down. But, as usual, it didn’t - just a few drops which the dry earth soaked up almost as fast as the rain drops landed.
My first stop after leaving Mount Magnet was Paynes Find. This was once a gold mining town that had now become a ghost town, except for a solitary roadhouse and a few mines still scratching a living from the high gold prices. I filled up with petrol and went in to pay with my credit card but the credit card machine failed to work.
“It appears they’ve had some rain down the road from here. When the credit card machine stops working it’s always a sign that there’s been rain. If the phone goes down, they’ve had a good shower maybe even a flood somewhere” the owner said.
“I was in Mount Magnet last night. We had a sprinkle” I said
“Well, you got more than we did here” he said.
The intense heat that is so much part of the days further up north, was gradually disappearing. The morning was cool and a light breeze had sprung up from the south. There was a light covering of cloud. The coolness and the lack of sun was a blessing. Sunshine is the essence of life but day in and day out for months on end, it not only is hard on your eyes and skin but is it also hard on the soul. I’d often dream of a cool steely grey overcast day with constant drizzle, no hat or sunglasses, a light cardigan. But I’m not in the United Kingdom where this is the norm, I’m here in Australia. I was born here in Australia and grew up in Sydney and lived much of my life in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland. The climate here is sunny with the occasional full day of rain and sometimes a little longer. But, then out comes the sun again. That to me is easy to live with rather than constant sun or constant drizzle. I often wonder how the immigrants from the UK endure the dry sunny climate they came to here in Australia. They come from a cool, damp and overcast climate in the U.K. to a hot dry and sunny climate here in Australia, especially if they live in Adelaide or Perth where many UK immigrants headed in the days of mass immigration.
The southerly breeze was a headwind but not serious enough to slow Hewie down. The oil pressure always hung around the 40 psi in the hot weather but in the cool air it was back running at 50 psi again. Driving conditions were very pleasant and the scenery started to change from the dry flat arid country to rolling hills with more trees. Wildflowers grew profusely along the side of the road. They were so beautiful that I stopped on numerous occasions to photograph them. But I couldn’t get the camera to come up with an image that displayed their real beauty. I was well into the “wheat belt” by the time I reached the wheat belt town of Dalwallinu. I was enjoying the drive and there was little traffic. I’d planned to stop somewhere for the night but continued on until I reached Fremantle, late that afternoon.