Monday, March 30, 2015

Cool dude on a hot day

Wil Thomas is one cool dude. You'd expect that, anyway, from that missing L - but he is, really. Not perhaps literally, though. The temperature was 38 degrees the morning I met him under a boab tree on Broome's Town Beach, and whereas I was in sandals, 3/4 pants and a light top, he was dressed in boots, black jeans, a long-sleeved shirt and a hat. He was sweating, by half time, I noticed - but then, so was I, and I'd spent most of the tour carefully edging into whatever shade was available (I'd have sat down too, if it wasn't for the blasted ants).

Anyway, Broome Historical Walking Tours. It's just Wil, and a booklet of reproduced black and white photos, and a walk around the locations in the pics. Plus talking, of course. That's the best part - Wil tells a mean story, and Broome gives him plenty of great material. He concentrates on the two things the town is best-known for: WW2 and pearling. In fact the air raids on Broome, like Darwin, were kept quiet by the government as far as the general populace was concerned during the war and for a long time afterwards its dramatic history remained widely unknown. It was all about morale: the Japanese almost obliterated the town in 1942 on a bombing raid that turned out to be unexpectedly profitable for them, and started a fire that pretty much finished the job for them.
There were 17 Catalinas moored in Roebuck Bay almost exactly 73 years before my tour with Wil, carrying Dutch refugees from Java on their way to Perth. Nine Zeroes swept in looking for military targets and were, presumably, delighted to find not only eight Air Force planes on the ground, but the Catalinas too, and no defensive fire. About 100 people died, most of them women and children refugees. Wil honoured Gus Winkle, who was horrifically heroic, as we stood by his grave. There was also a great story about a package of diamonds that got caught up in the melée - a classic Aussie yarn.

And then, as we walked along the seafront, poking at the damp sand with our toes to winkle out artefacts from those days, Wil told us about the Master Pearlers, the uses of mother-of-pearl shell, why the bends is called that, why the Japanese divers thought they would make their fortunes in Broome, about the appalling treatment of young, pregnant women, about Blackbirding, and sending the laundry to Singapore. Fascinating stuff. We ended up at the Broome Historical Museum (which prompts the question: what other sort is there?) which has plenty of interest of its own, presented in that slightly ramshackle way that I really enjoy in a small museum.

Altogether? An excellent way to spend $35 and an hour and a half. Recommended.

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