Down Under - Winter/Spring 2009 travel blog

4 camel drivers

our camel

ready to work

camel train

our shadow

Gantheaume Point

Gantheaume Point

Gantheaume Point panorama

red stone and blue water

what a face

handling a baby croc

Pearl Luggers museum

Sun Pictures

After two days at sea we were turning into lazy slugs, and our itinerary in Broome snapped us back into action. Broome is affected by huge tides varying up to 33 feet, so the captain had to time our arrival to the tide table. We docked at 2am and by 7:30am we were on our way to Cable Beach for a camel ride. Cable Beach got its name from the telegraph cable that was laid across Australia and went into the Indian Ocean here on its way to its ultimate goal - England.

The camels were sitting on the beach chewing their cud and patiently waiting for the gig to begin. It was two passengers per camel and we worried that our camel would not be able to arise with our tonnage, enhanced by the gourmet cruise diet. but I barely got my foot in the stirrup when Rajah bounded into the air. Camels can carry up to a ton of weight. Riding a camel with a saddle is very easy, but staying in that saddle while it gets up and down is a challenge. The back knees bend backwards and come up first. Hang on hard or you’ll fly over the camel’s head. The front legs cause the opposite problem. Australia has more camels than any other country. They were brought here by explorers who wanted to visit the Outback. Once the trip was over they were often left behind and became wild once again. It takes three to six weeks to get a wild camel used to passengers and ours had years of experience. Gary’s camel had a racing career before he came to Cable Beach and could run up to 55kph. Domesticated camels live almost twice as long as those in the wild and the camel company tried to retire their 38 year old, but he would have none of it. He wanted to go to work with his buddies and did agree to only carry one passenger rather than two. We enjoyed the ride immensely. Maybe when we return we can take an overnight camel trek...

Then we hopped a shuttle bus into town, which has preserved much of the corrugated iron architecture wrapped by verandahs and Chinese peaked roofs that many of the early immigrants brought with them. We stopped into Sun Pictures, the oldest outdoor theater in the world beginning in 1916. The airport landing strip is a short distance from downtown and the films are sometimes interrupted by the noise of a plane roaring a few yards overhead.

The next stop was Gantheaume Point., an incredibly scenic area. The stone, dirt and sand here are full of iron and very red. The contrast between the red stone carved into fanciful shapes by the wind and sea against the bright blue water was magnificent. Beach combers have found many fossils here as well as the footprints of a dinosaur over 120 million years old.

When the early Europeans came to this area, they noticed the Aborigines wearing large pearl shells over their privates. They asked them where they came from and found they were laying all over the beach. They shipped them back to England and the pearling industry began. The large, flat shells supplied the mother-of-pearl that became so popular as buttons and inlay and sometimes round pearls were found inside the shells as well. The easy-to-find shells on the beach were gathered up quickly and soon the men had to look under the waves to find more. Since white men couldn’t be bothered with such arduous tasks, they kidnapped Aboriginal men after getting them drunk and forced them in chains to dive down and gather more. The white men grew very rich from the pearl trade and wore white from head to toe in the fashion of the times. Their clothes could not be laundered here because the water had a tinge of red from the red soil, so they sent their laundry to Singapore to be washed and pressed. When enslaving Aboriginals was outlawed, they hired the Japanese, who showed exceptional talent. The British navy had developed diving helmets and the Japanese wore about 275 pounds of weight, including the heavy brass helmets into the water. They worked nine months a year until the cyclone season began and stayed underwater during daylight hours. As they dove deeper and deeper, the bends became a problem and many of them died from bobbing to the surface with a basket full of shells and going right back down again. They also became opium addicts to help them with the pain of the bends. During World War II the Japanese were interned in Australia as they were in the US and the pearl business came to a halt. By the time the war ended, interest in pearl buttons had waned and plastic buttons were cheap and easy. Today jewelry quality pearls are cultivated here and the local shops had some beauties as large as grapes for sale.

Our last stop was a crocodile park. We are familiar with the alligators who live in our country and know that if they are not hungry, they are lazy and sluggish. In fact we rode our bikes around some on a trail in the Everglades. However, the saltwater crocodiles here are another story altogether. They are huge - over twenty feet long and 1300 pounds. They are very territorial and react immediately and fiercely whenever anything enters their space. They can lurk in murky water just a bit bigger than they are and only their eyes and nostrils are above the surface. The zoo keeper had large plastic balls on ropes that he would throw into a pond and the croc would explode to the surface and dig its teeth deep into the plastic, even though their bellies were full. I got the same ominous feeling in my stomach that I got the first time I saw Jaws. If we come here again, I’ll be afraid to get out of the car.

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