The Australian outback. A place unlike any other. To the greenhorn it seems a harsh, inhospitable desert wilderness punctuated by …
For no significant reason we decided after two weeks living the high life with the bogans on Cable Beach to move a mile up the coast and set up camp in Roebuck Bay. For those that do not know, a bogan is an Australian word for a person from a low class background who is poorly educated. An English equivalent would be the “chav”. Further information can be found at http://www.bogan.com.au/.
Roebuck Bay, just on the edge of Broome is named after HMS Roebuck, the ship captained by the now frequently mentioned William Dampier during his exploration of the north-western coast of Australia in 1699. Dampier laid anchor here for a short while and as with half of the Western Australian coast named if after his boat. The other half he named after himself.
It was an attractive spot that we chose, facing out to sea at the Roebuck Bay Caravan Park. To the right the jetty was visible and to the left the thick mangrove swamps that line the mudflats which at certain times of the month, when the tidal and lunar cycles coincide play host to a phenomenon known as the “Staircase to the Moon”. The light of the moon is reflected off the mud flats as it rises in the evening giving the impression of a staircase in front of it.
When this occurs a market selling pearl jewellery from the local pearling industry is erected and hundreds of people line the shore to watch. Broome is built on the pearling industry and for some time was the most populous place in Northern Australia. A mixture of nationalities and races worked here side by side diving for and culturing pearls for the lucrative European and Asian markets. This ethnic mix has left its mark on the local place names with pubs such as “The Nippon Inn” named after the Japanese divers and of course “The Roey” named predictably after the HMS Roebuck.
The Pearling industry begun in Broome in the 1870’s following the discovery of the unusually large Pinctada Maxima oyster. At first they were harvested by aboriginal women and traded for their large shells. Aboriginal women have a larger lung capacity than aboriginal men so they were able to harvest more oysters in less time.
Before long Sri Lankan divers had started to get in on the act, still harvesting the oysters for their shells and not the pearls that could be found inside some of them.
Free diving gave way to more sophisticated methods, with pearl luggers heading out under sail with a dive suit and air pump allowing divers to stay submerged for prolonged periods of time in relative comfort. By the 1930’s these sailboats had given way to motorised versions which could carry enough equipment for two divers, doubling their productivity once again.
Before the industry took off in the nineteenth century, the oysters were plentiful and could be picked up from the beach. However following the rapid growth of the pearling industry they soon became scarce and this forced the development of increasingly sophisticated diving equipment and methods. The development of safer and more efficient methods of collection saved many lives as in the early days of the Broome pearling industry, the brave female aboriginal divers were often drowned in pursuit of their prize.
Later in the week we visited the Malcolm Douglas Crocodile Park where we had our first experience of the ferocious saltwater crocodile. Some animals have an undeserved reputation. Crocodiles do not. Crocodiles will quite happily kill you for no other reason than because you are there. Highly aggressive, extremely territorial, hugely powerful and masters of camouflage crocodiles have remained virtually unchanged since the era of the dinosaurs. Inside the park we watched them leap six feet out of the water to eat and then disappear into a few inches of murky water again. It is truly incredible just how well a crocodile can hide in what seems to be an impossibly shallow puddle. It is no wonder that they are such feared creatures.
The park itself is a conservation effort which has been running since 1983 and aims to educate people about crocodiles. The park also houses crocs that are considered particularly dangerous due to their being unusually aggressive or particularly large which makes for a safer time for the croc and the bloke who lives near him as well as a more exciting crocodile park filled with big nasty buggers to look at.
Aside from beach combing, which threw up lots of interesting finds including some beautiful shells, the best of which is pictured below, I spent a few days fishing.
An afternoon spent on the jetty saw me catch a few snapper but it was too far to walk there which meant that I couldn’t drink beer, which meant that it wasn’t really fishing. So I tried my hand on the beach in front of the van. Faye swam around among the mangrove swamps at high tide while I fished. We later found out that the mangroves are often frequented by crocs due to the abundance of delicious crabs, fish and women that can be found there. Faye stopped swimming there anyway when after an afternoon swim she saw the fin of a tiger shark breaking the water and swimming through the submerged trees. In fact that represented our last swim in the sea for the next few months as we headed further north and the risk of box jellyfish and crocodiles became too great.
The box jellyfish has been called “the world’s most venomous creature,” though only a few species in the class have been confirmed to be involved in human deaths and some species pose no serious threat. That said, it’s best not to test which kind it is because the nasty ones can be so painful that you will go into cardiac arrest and die within minutes. Heart attacks are known for being quite rubbish. Heart attacks in the sea are even more rubbish.
After three days fruitlessly fishing, watching the aboriginal children 50 yards away fill bags with fish I decided to ask what their secret was. As it turned out they had built a fish trap like those used in Britain during the Iron Age. Using rocks they had created a large V-shaped pool which they had baited and then left until high tide. The fish would then swim in and gorge themselves on the bait until the tide went back out, leaving a concentrated pool of fish which were more harvested than caught by the boys. I felt cheated, but at the same time quietly impressed.
With that mystery solved we decided to go to a small visitor centre outside the town which was run by local aboriginal people. There we saw the canoes and spears used to hunt the dugong and turtles.
A hand held harpoon with detachable points is used requiring a great deal of skill, from an open wooden canoe, although these days they prefer to use aluminium dinghies with outboard motors. For the people of the Gulf of Carpentaria there is great ceremonial meaning in this. Spears are also used in Arnhem Land to the East of Darwin to catch fish and freshwater crocodiles. Goanna lizards are caught by hand or brought down with sticks after they have escaped into a tree. Goannas. They are highly prized for their delicious meat. Personally I would rather eat a kangaroo any day.
We were then shown the various uses of the local plants. Some were used for medicine, some eaten and some were used in more ingenious ways such as the spinifex resin that was drawn out from the spinifex grass and used to fix spearheads, seal boats, make tools and many other things. When faced with a landscape of limited resources it is astonishing how many different problems can be solved with just one plant. It is called Baru in the languages of the Yindjibarndi and Ngarluma. As well as being an excellent adhesive it can be used to make smoke signals to communicate with families and groups over long distances as burning spinifex produces a strong black smoke.
It is also used for building shelters by bunching it together as well as being for trapping fish against creek beds in a similar fashion to the rocky fish trap used by the aboriginal boys in Roebuck Bay. Among its roots lives a valuable source of food, the famous witchetty grub. The raw witchetty grub tastes like almonds and when cooked the skin becomes crisp like roast chicken while the inside becomes light yellow, like a fried egg. The witchetty grub is in fact the larvae of a number of different moths, all of which taste much the same as their diets are very similar. The name witchetty grub comes from the Adynyamathanha word “wityu” which is a hooked stick used to dig them out of the ground. It is unusual for men to dig for them although they form a staple part of the diet for aboriginal women and children who traditionally dig them up.
The most interesting of all the plants that we saw was in my opinion a stunted shrub which numbed the skin. Aboriginal people use it as an anaesthetic for wounds and to numb their feet enough to allow them to run around on the sharp and jagged coral reefs and fish with their spears. this technique is good up to a point but the blood from the inevitable cuts on ones feet will eventually attract sharks as one of the guides told us in the form of a dubious but exciting anecdote involving the spearing of a shark in the nick of time as it made its run in to attack his companion who was bleeding profusely from an unnoticed cut on his foot.
After a full month in Broome spent exploring, drinking, fishing and playing guitar on the beach, we set off across the stunning Kimberly mountain range towards Katherine.