July is the middle of winter Down Under. My kids live in Melbourne, which gets especially miserable, rainy and cold at that time (arguably it is the first two all year round, but the cold bit comes mainly in the winter).
The children, as a result, had been angling to go “somewhere warm” during their July school holidays. So in and amongst usual thoughts of Bali, Thailand and North Queensland, I thought of perhaps taking them to Broome, in Western Australia, which has a 22km long beach and is warm when the south of Australia is cold.
Then I saw a snippet on a travel show, which pointed out that Broome’s other highlights include sunset camel-rides, whale-watching, proximity to the outback, and the possibility of having a close-up encounter with crocodiles. And even though the prospect of coming face-to-face with a crocodile may not be all that appealing, for me it was the clincher, given that my kids are kind of obsessed with all things crocodilian at the moment.
Decision made – a winter holiday in Broome it would be.
For those not in the know, Broome is a small town of about 14,000 people on the far north-west coast of Australia.
However, this is not quite the same as saying that Blackpool is on the far north-west coast of England, for example. You see, Broome is about 2,200 kilometres north-east of Perth (capital of Western Australia), and 1,800 kilometres south-west of Darwin (capital of the Northern Territory). Between Broome and these two considerably larger cities, there is not very much at all besides the vast emptiness of Australia – mile after mile of scrubby desert, red-dust and the occasional kangaroo.
Admittedly these are distance on a scale that anyone outside of Australia will find quite hard to fathom, so it is enough to say that Broome is officially the most remote regional capital in the world. Put in a more familiar context, it takes two full days to drive from Perth to Broome, and if you were insane enough to do this you would still have only traversed about half the width of the state of Western Australia. Or put another way, in the time it takes to fly from Melbourne to Broome you could more or less get from London to New York, or from New York to Rio.
Or put another way, Broome is in the middle of absolutely fucking nowhere.
Perhaps for this reason, it is a place that has the look and feel of a wild-west frontier settlement. The old town centre resembles a spaghetti-Western movie-set, a row of rugged, low slung buildings stretched out in single-file along a main street that boasts a general store, an old picture house (according to the Guinness Book of Records, Broome’s Sun Picture House is the world’s oldest continually operating outdoor cinema, with nightly screenings since 1916), and quite a good number of saloons.
Although in Broome it all comes with a uniquely Aussie flavour – the buildings are made of tin (tin being easy to transport and more weather resistant than wood); the saloons are otherwise known as pubs (where you order beer by the “schooner” and swat away flies), and everything is covered in a thin layer of red-dust that blows in from the surrounding desert. Instead of horses, four-wheel drive pick-ups are tethered all along the main street, outnumbering other types of vehicles ten to one.
For millennia Broome was home to the indigenous Yawuru people. In the early 1800s Europeans colonized the area for pastoral purposes, and being good European colonizers, enslaved, massacred and decimated the local Aboriginal population. For the next 75 years Broome remained entirely insignificant to the world at large, a mere pimple on the map of Australia made up of two shops, a dusty street and a clutch of houses. The place had no road or rail connection to anywhere else, and was only accessible after a long sea journey.
Then in 1889, two things happened. First, an undersea cable connecting Australia to Singapore, and then on to England, was completed, and made landfall in Australia at Broome (the beach where it came ashore is today known as Cable Beach, and is Broome’s principal tourist attraction).
Second, someone figured out that the waters around Broome were teeming with oysters, and absolutely perfect for cultivating mother-of-pearl shell (and pearls). As a result Broome experienced a pearling boom, a port was built for the export of this commodity, and thousands flocked to the town chasing after gold and glory. For a while Broome dominated the world supply of mother-of-pearl, which was in hot demand in Europe. As a result, in turn-of-the-20th-century London the town of Broome was as well-known an Australian place as its much bigger southern sisters of Melbourne and Sydney.
Pearling back then was a very primitive business. Initially, the pearlers would free dive to great depth, without the aid of any equipment. Later, pearl-divers took to wearing massive metal dive-suits and heavy cast-iron boots. They would be dropped off the side of a boat (called a “lugger”) and sink to the sea-floor. There they would gather oysters, kept alive until they were yanked up to the surface again by nothing more than a thin air hose.
At first, pearling was a Europeans only affair. But it was dangerous, dangerous work. Cyclones and rough seas could snap the air hose like a twig, leaving the diver to die a horrible death of asphyxiation at the bottom of the sea. The dive-suits often leaked, marauding sharks often got to enjoy a snack of diver-au-natural, and the bends was a constant threat, with many divers dying in excruciating pain on return to the surface.
Pretty soon the white pearlers, keen on the money but not so keen on the dying, realised that doing the dangerous stuff was mugs work. Instead they took to kidnapping local Aborigines, and then forcing them to do the diving on their behalf. When this pool of less-than-compliant labour proved insufficient to meet the growing demand, the next step was to bring in low-paid labour from Asia – primarily Japan and China – to fill the gap.
Not surprisingly, a good number of the Aboriginal and Asian pearl labourers died on the job. Broome’s Japanese cemetery (today a tourist attraction) has 919 graves of Japanese pearl divers who lost their lives. And this is only those whose bodies were able to be buried – many more died at sea so their bodies were never recovered. Plus there is a separate Chinese cemetery, and a European cemetery as well, both filled with thousands of graves of those who died in pursuit of pearls.
Death toll aside, this did mean that in its heyday Broome was an interesting place, and the first truly multicultural Australian town. It boasted a unique melange of Europeans, indigenous Australians, and imported Asian pearl workers. These diverse people of different colours and backgrounds lived, worked and died side-by-side, an anachronism in a country that at the time practiced a policy of “White Australia”.
Indeed, as one commentator described Broome back then, it was a “town in which lanes lined with noodle stalls and opium dens, and the slum dwellings of hawkers and prostitutes, were more reminiscent of Asia than Australia; and where pearl shell mattered more than human life. Tales of murder, rape, theft, brutality and treachery are found side by side with courage, honesty, and pioneering vision”.
Today, Broome remains a centre for high quality pearl production, mainly cultivated at large industrial-scale pearl farms, located some way outside of town. But pearls aren’t as desirable as they once were, and so nowadays the main industry of Broome has switched to the seasonal tourist trade.
You see, most of the year Broome is swelteringly hot, wet and rainy, and its sea is infested with lethal jellyfish. But then from around May to September each year, the temperature drops to a most pleasant 29 degrees centigrade, the rain stops, and the jellyfish bugger off. Coincidentally that is just when the southern parts of Australia, where most people live, has its winter. Broome is thus a perfect winter getaway spot, and during this peak season swells to four times its normal size, as about forty thousand tourists a month pour in.
For good reason – as far as family-friendly beach holidays go, Broome is absolutely magnificent. Cable Beach is a huge expanse of crisp white sand, so wide and long that despite being there in peak tourist season, it never felt crowded. The beach fronts onto the bluest of blue seas imaginable, cool, crystal clear, and totally calm, stretching out to the horizon. Overhead, the sky is equally blue and infinite, and cloudless most of the time. Standing in the shallow water just off the beach, sandwiched between sea and sky, I felt like I was standing on the edge of my own private, infinity-edge lagoon.
Each day we would arrive at the beach by around 10am. I would hand $30 to a guy in board-shorts, and he in turn would set us up with an umbrella, a few deck chairs, a boogie-board for each child, and a bag of buckets, spades and sand-castle building implements.
Which, unbelievably enough, was all that was needed to keep three children fully engaged for a whole day, day after day. They ran around in the fresh air, swam in the sea, and built sand-castles with their hands and imaginations. They played, talked and laughed, and squealed delightedly in the water. There was no iPad, video game console, or TV to keep them amused, and so when the kids got bored they would simply have a snooze on a deck chair, or go for a walk to forage for shells. If they got really bored they’d even do things as completely retro as read a book, printed on paper. Remember those?
It wasn’t just the kids, of course. Their father discovered to his horror (and then delight) that mobile phone reception on Cable Beach is quite limited, and also that attempting to use a laptop on a beach is a recipe for experiencing “technical issues” (otherwise known as sand in the keyboard). So after a brief bout of the obligatory withdrawal symptoms, I largely ditched the phone during the days, and instead took to dozing, swimming, finding lunch and ice-cream for the family, and building increasingly elaborate sand-castles with the children.
It is not like we lazed on the beach all the time though. We had serious work to do, too – like visiting a crocodile farm on one day; and on another, travelling three hundred kilometres into the Kimberley to the Widjana Gorge, where we walked along a natural river where crocodiles in their hundreds lay about, basking on the banks. As we passed within five feet of their glistening teeth, our guide told us not to worry, these were well-fed crocodiles, plus they were generally inactive during the heat of the day, and anyway another tour group had been through earlier so if anyone was going to be croc food, it would have been them. Hmmm ….
One afternoon I took the kids on a camel ride along Cable Beach, something which has become one of the iconic “things to do” when Broome. Many people don’t know it, but Australia has the world’s largest population of feral camels, which roam the outback. For about fifty years from 1860, around 10,000 camels were imported into Australia from India, North Africa and Arabia. Being creatures of the desert, they were especially useful when it came to the colonization of the centre and west of country.
However, some escaped, they multiplied like, well,…. like camels, and today there are an estimated one million wild camels on the loose across Australia’s deserts. They are a complete pest, ravaging the environment and destroying infrastructure, with no known predators to keep them in check. In a bizarre twist, wild camels are nowadays often captured and then exported live to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for food (disease free wild camel meat is considered a bit of a delicacy in those parts). A much smaller number are broken in, tamed, and taught to walk in a straight line up and down Cable Beach, carrying eager tourists on their backs.
The kids absolutely loved it, although good as they were, for me the camels were upstaged by another form of wildlife we spotted parading about on the sand, near the water’s edge. You see, as we loped along atop our camels, we passed a section of the beach that allows nude bathing. There we spied several dozen people – mostly men, and mostly elderly men at that, their skin hanging off them like baggy suits – frolicking in the buff (why is it only unattractive people who frequent nudist beaches?).
My daughter Orli, who was riding on a camel with me, saw the nudists before I did, and immediately burst into hysterical laughter at the sight of it all. “Aba [Dad]”, she asked me, “in Broome, why do they allow naked men with wrinkly pee-pees onto the beach?” Not an easy one to answer, even at the best of times; much more so when your own pee-pee is getting a thorough wrinkling of its own thanks to the lurching motion of a camel.
Nudity aside, each day on the beach ended in the same spectacular way – with a brilliant, blazing, impossibly beautiful sunset. Cable Beach faces directly west, and so as the setting sun descends you get to watch the whole sky turns from blue into bands of brilliant colour – yellow and orange and purple. These strips of colour are reflected onto the calm waters of the sea and the white sand of beach as well, so for a few minutes before the sun disappears below the horizon it feels like you are standing inside of a rainbow.
Which I can only say is the most wonderful, exhilarating feeling imaginable.
One evening, after the kids were asleep, I went online to read up on the history of Broome. I had thought that perhaps we might take a half day out of our busy beach schedule to do something vaguely “cultural” – maybe visit a pearl farm or the old “Chinatown” district of Broome, or go check out the Japanese and Chinese cemeteries, which as I mentioned before have long since ceased to be active burial grounds, and instead have become slightly macabre tourist attractions.
And in the course of doing this reading, I came across a rather unexpected, not to mention bizarre, little article, which described how in May 2013 (so less than six weeks before) a Jewish section of the Broome Cemetery had been dedicated, making it both the newest and most remote Jewish cemetery in the world.
Oh, but of course.
So the next morning, before breakfast, I decided to pay a brief a visit to the Broome Cemetery. Just outside the gate of the cemetery a most helpful man had set up a mobile espresso service, where I ordered my morning pick-me-up. Thus allowing me to now say “so, with a steaming double-shot low-fat cappuccino in hand, I entered the ancient grave-yard”, which honestly is not anything I had ever before contemplated being able to say.
I first passed through the Japanese section of the cemetery – hundreds and hundreds of gravestones, stark slabs of grey rock standing like soldiers in neat rows, with Japanese text engraved on them. It was all a bit surreal – like a little slice of Tokyo had been uprooted and transplanted into this most unlikely of places, and where instead of cherry blossoms and decorative rock gardens and the sounds of song-birds, the tombstones are surrounded by Eucalyptus trees and red dust and the sounds of native Australian parakeets.
Next I went through the Chinese section, equally surreal, and then a Muslim section, a general section, and then finally, tucked away in a far corner of the cemetery, I found the recently inaugurated Jewish section of the Broome cemetery. Here there are a grand total of six graves, some behind a small picket fence, in the shade of some trees. The graves dated from 1905 to 1925, and the inscriptions on the graves were in both English and Hebrew. Just like in Jewish cemeteries everywhere, there were no flowers, and instead a few small stones had been placed on the graves as a sign of respect.
So, what’s the story? Well, apparently, at the height of the Broome pearling era a number of Jews made their way to this most remote spot in Australia. Just like the European pearl bosses and the Asian pearl labourers, they were lured by the economic prospects that the industry afforded.
Some Jews became prominent members of the Broome community. Broome’s largest Pearl buyer prior to WWI, for example, was a Jew, Mark Rubin. He had a large house in the centre of town, which came to be known generally in Broome as the “open Jewish house”. Here Rubin hosted visiting pearl buyers and dignitaries, but also offered use of his house as a hub for Jewish activities in the town. So it became an unofficial synagogue of sorts, a Jewish clubhouse, and the venue for Passover seders and festive meals on Jewish holidays.
Many of the Jewish migrants to Broome eventually left, to live out their lives in places like Perth, Melbourne and Sydney. Some however died in Broome, and were buried in the local cemetery, where their graves lay forgotten for almost a century. Then about ten years ago, Warren and Brenda Austin from the Jewish Historical and Genealogical Society of Western Australia identified these graves, and applied to the Broome municipality to have a Jewish section in the cemetery formally dedicated.
Amongst the graves was one marked as being that of Daniel Henry Hatfield, Master Pearler, buried in 1925 (the guest of honour at the dedication of the cemetery was his 95-year-old niece). Mark Rosenberg was buried there in 1919; Maurice Isaacs and Joseph Benjamin in 1910, Bernie Shaumer in 1908. The oldest grave is that of Mark Liebglud, a pearl buyer, who was buried in 1905, murdered by pearl divers after an altercation broke out when they tried to sell him fake pearls.
And even though there are only six graves, by Western Australian standards, it is quite the crowd. I learned that individual Jewish graves have also been identified at other equally remote spots in that vast state. Places like Carnarvon, Coolgardie, and Sandstone, all former mining towns, which similar to Broome experienced resource led booms for a short time, attracting people from all walks of life to them, before fading into obscurity, just like those who are buried there.
Back in the endless sunshine of Cable Beach later that afternoon, I couldn’t help thinking of the strange little Jewish cemetery I had seen that morning, and the Japanese, Chinese and Muslim cemeteries, too.
I kept thinking about how deeply parochial we humans tend to be. We may travel to the very end of our known world in pursuit of wealth and a better life, yet we still feel an overpowering urge to maintain beliefs and practices from “back home”. Even if that home is far, far away, and one we will never see again. And, when our time is up, just like the pearl workers in Broome, we still want to be buried in the manner of our forefathers. Never mind that in the end, whether Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Aboriginal, Chinese or Japanese, we all wind up sleeping under the same blazing outback sun.