Broome is a town in Australia’s far north west. There is no much that it is close to. It is on the bottom of ‘The Peninsular’ that has Broome on its south east side and Derby on the south west. Further east are Fitzroy Crossing and Halls Creek and north of Halls Creek is Kununurra. It is the Kimberley. Very red soil, very blue oceans and reasonably green trees.
Distance from Broome to Perth = 2,200km; from Broome to Darwin = 1,800km; Broome to Sydney is 4,500km and Broome to Singapore = 2,900km.
First impressions when you come to Broome are a little underwhelming, and I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that the locals probably like it this way. It has a big reputation as a luxury tourist destination, and you expect to arrive and have some kind of sophisticated cocktail handed to you as you magically change into white clothes and sip it while you overlook your infinity pool with other equally sophisticated people, also wearing white.
This is kind of true, but the town is a lot more complex and fun that than that.
The Shinju Matsuri Festival, the ‘Festival of the Pearl’ was in its 45th year this year. Like Easter, the dates depend on the moon and the tides and this year it ran in late August, early September.
I met up with Neilo McKenzie at the recommendation of a number of people, after I put the word around that we were looking for someone who could tell a story about old Broome. He asked us to meet him for lunch at his office which turned out to be a road construction site. He hopped off a piece of large machinery and asked us to be seated on a kind of anthill. Then he started to talk about his heritage, about Broome, about what can be found in a mangrove swamp and how to read the wind. We were mesmerised, and could have easily listened for another hour after our hour was up. Turns out Neilo is not only aboriginal / indigenous but also part Italian, part Irish and part Japanese. Or something like that. Definitely part aboriginal and part Italian. I asked him if he’d ever been to Italy, and he said ‘never, and I never will. I’m too scared to fly with all these terrorists about’. Fair enough.
His story is mirrored in any number of people in the community.
There is Ahmet, a 70+ year old Malaysian man who is one of the few hard hat divers still around (1). He cooks up a pretty good sate and sells them at ‘A Taste of Broome’, and we were lucky enough to have him and his son Johari cooking at the Sunset long table. On Saturday morning he mans the desk at the Court House markets selling copies of his wife’s book about growing up in Broome.
Another hard hat diver is Eddie Roe, the 85 year old patron of the Festival and lad, that I dropped off at a pub one night so that he could hear his young protégé Tania Ransom singing. He gleefully tells a story of being employed as a pearl diver in Darwin and getting bubbles in his bones. The doctor said he wouldn’t survive and he said ‘I’ll show you, ya bastard’, and survived.
Photos courtesy of imageoasis.com
The Festival starts when Sammy the dragon is woken up (2). His blindfold is taken off by the oldest Chinaman in town – depending on how you how you measure age and define Chinaman. Doug Fong has been doing this job for a good few years.
The Float Parade is exuberant (3). A number of adult Broomeites remember their days as a child either being in the parade or standing with the thousands of spectators watching from the sidelines. Float Parade participants were all told by letter (by me) that they should marshal from 3pm, and the parade would start at 4pm. Luckily they understood that this meant they would be starting the parade at 3pm as they always do, and marshaling from 2pm. Numbers were drawn on the kerb and each float lined up next to their allocated number, waiting for the signal and then inched their way forward behind Sammy. Kids throw water bombs at the floats and people on the float either throw bags of lollies, or in the case of the town fire engine they spray the crowd who are happy with the impromptu shower on a hot afternoon.
The parade participants and several thousand of their friends and relatives then settle in for a concert on Male Park, the oddly named ‘Mardi Gras’.
Each year there is an Art Prize, and as of two years ago there is also a sculpture competition. There is a satisfying amount of local scandal associated with the prize each year which does not at all diminish the shining talent of the artists. The sculpture competition is called ‘A View to Asia’, and overlooks Cable Beach. The connection there, pardon the pun, is that Cable Beach is actually the place where the communications cable is laid that links Australia with the rest of the world. Next stop probably Jakarta or thereabouts.
Two new additions to the Festival Calendar this year were the floating Lantern Matsuri and the Sunset Long Table.
Five hundred lanterns were floated off the beach at Gantheaume, carrying the thoughts and memories of people who are lost or passed away. I baulk a bit at the words ‘passed away’. I prefer to call a spade and spade and say ‘dead’, but even tough old me was touched at the way people immediately understood and wanted to remember people who had been close to them. Parents encouraged children to design lanterns to remember their grandparents; there were messages in any number of languages, and there were works of temporary art that were launched onto the water, glowing as they drifted along the beach with easily a thousand people quietly watching.
Photos courtesy of imageoasis.com
Afterwards all the lanterns were carefully retrieved by local volunteers, with help from the town’s rangers. No water pollution here! As I walked back up the beach, I passed a man with a guitar who was playing his tunes from the back of a ute.
The Sunset Long Table had a different intention. These were the people wearing white and drinking cocktails that I expected when I arrived in Broome. Think of a 70m long table for 220 people marooned on the beach at night time.
The chef, Don Hancey is well known in Western Australia and has a passion to promote WA produce. He worked alongside local Broome chefs to showcase local ingredients in Japanese, indigenous, Chinese and Malay courses then finished with the biggest blocks of cheese you’ve ever seen. Cheese from the south west. It is food theatre.
At the Festival Finale the Pigrim Brothers (quartet) played live. Sammy arrived and his blind fold was replaced. The Pigrims warmed up to their Rain Dance song and as they sang about thunder, ‘boom’ the fireworks started and Shinju Matsuri was over for another year.
Get involved, I say, and get up to Broome. In its own Broome-time way, its happening.
For more information about the Shinju Matsuri Festival, see the website – www.shinjumatsuri.com.au