Shinju Matsuri is Japanese for ‘Festival of the Pearl’ and Broome celebrates the excitement and romance as a world-renowned producer of South Sea Pearls. The annual pearl festival rekindles a time when the Japanese, Chinese, Malay, Koreans, Filipino and Europeans flocked to Broome from the late 1800s to join in with this prosperity. Shinju Matsuri is a testament to Broome’s generosity as it tempts 1,000s of annual visitors in a whirlwind of cultural flair for over 50 years and rejoices during August and September.
It’s easy to spot my ride when I land at Broome’s International Airport. The pedicab and Schmicko’s appropriately tropical shirt gives it away. His name derives from his former life as a tradie (hence the “o”) and because he always does a good job. He’s full of tales about his beloved town as we whizz past old homesteads with lattice windows in Brunswick red and green.
We make a pit stop at the Japanese Cemetery, one of the largest Japanese cemeteries not related to war, and the final resting place of hundreds of Japanese, many of who died as a result of the dangerous work carried out for the pearling industry. Most came from the Japanese village of Taraji (Broome’s sister city) to seek their fortune in the pearling industry as a result of the decline in the whaling industry. They didn’t know what the decompression sickness known as the bends were back then and it was a one size fits all for the clunky dive suits; I shudder at their doomed fate.
The Chinese and Muslim cemeteries are next door and set the tone for Broome’s multiculturalism, aka Broome creole, instigated by the pearling industry which also attracted Malays, Timorese, Filipinos, Europeans and the indigenous, who were often kidnapped and forced into slave labour. No wonder the town has a wild west reputation as the streets were once lined with saloons, bars, brothels and opium dens constructed from tin, which was cyclone-resistant and one of the few materials they had access to because it was easy to transport.
The following day Kerry Bennett, owner of Instyle Adventures, collects me from my spacious apartment at the Oaks Broome and we delve further into Broome’s intriguing past punctuated with a visit to Cygnet Pearl’s showroom in town. Like any self-respecting lady living in Broome, Kerry is already doned in her pearls because if you don’t wear them regularly they lose their lustre; sounds like a perfectly reasonable excuse for glamour. I’m offered a strand to borrow for tonight’s Sunset Long Table dinner on Cable Beach for Shinju, the annual festival of the pearl. Given it can take up to ten years to collect enough pearls of the same characteristics for just one strand, I suspect they cost more than my car. I decide the best place to keep them safe is around my neck.
Sammy the Dragon is in full swing when we arrive at the Saturday Broome Courthouse Markets; he only comes to life during Shinju much like Chinese New Year. Local (a prerequisite) produce, crafts and transient art galleries are interspersed in between boab trees. The Kimberley hues of turquoise and red pindan are ever present in the works of art inspired by the landscape, especially at Gantheaume Point, which is next on the itinerary. Adjoining Cable Beach, the red cliffs offer spectacular views of the coastline and it’s also the home of Broome’s first spa named Anastasia’s Pool where the high tides create a whirlpool effect in the carved-out rock. We conclude our tour with a late lunch at Matso’s Brewery, which is an institution that distributes its ales, lagers, ciders and ginger beers Australia-wide.
Pedicab and 4WD aren’t the only way to explore the region. It doesn’t get any more quintessential than a camel ride at sunset on Cable Beach, although a reeve on Harley-Trike certainly gets your motor running – check out Broome Vroom. Or board a hovercraft for a glide over the mudflaps and dinosaur footprints or a spectacular flight in a light aircraft over the horizontal falls 200km north to Cape Leveque.
Along with the crocodile cautions, the beach at Cape Leveque ought to come with a warning because reality will hurt just a little more when thinking back to this divine tip of the Dampier Peninsular. Extend your stay at a variety of camping and accommodation options at the Aboriginal-owned wilderness camp. Splash out on a deluxe safari tent with uninterrupted Indian Ocean views at Kooljaman at Cape Leveque, and order the Bush Butler service so you never have to leave your tent. Soften the blow of having to retch yourself off the beach at the alfresco Raugi’s Café which uses ingredients foraged locally like Kakadu plum and indigenous herbs.
Nearby is Australia’s oldest operating pearl farm Cygnet Bay Pearls. What began as a small family business in unchartered territory, Dean Brown arrived in 1946 with a dream and was the first non-Japanese to learn how to culture pearls. He’s equally famous for cultivating the world’s largest perfectly round South Sea pearl. His humble bark hut still stands, and 70 years later Cygnet Bay Pearls is a third-generation global company.
You may be overcome once again with that overwhelming feeling of not wanting to leave. The good news is you don’t have to. Sleep off a music session, languid meal or pearl meat degustation (also available at Cable Beach Club) at Shell @ Cygnet Bay in a tranquil en-suited safari tent or cottage. In fact, this is an excellent spot to base yourself when visiting indigenous communities, getting up close and personal with the horizontal waterfalls by boat, or joining a Giant Tides Tour formed by two-metre waterfalls over the reefs during high tide.
The flight back to Broome offers the kinds of views to cause a deluge of envy-invoking instagram posts. Whale watching is still technically on my bucket list, however, I was blessed to witness a breaching whale just after take-off. Shame the photo was blurry in my excitement.
Carmen Jenner was a guest of Australia’s Northwest Tourism, Shinju Matsuri, Oaks Broome, Virgin Airlines, Air Kimberley, Shinju Matsuri Pedicab Co Broome WA, Instyle Adventures and Cygnet Bay Pearls