BROOME’S Willie Creek Pearl Farm, serving generations of Australians and countless international tourists, has taken-off – literally.
Decades ago we hammered our cars out of Broome along a corrugated trail to learn something about pearl farming and its role in building a fascinating coastal town that produces the world’s best pearls.
Today, the road might still be rough (subject to the latest grader’s visit) but, in keeping with the times, tourists are collected from hotels and caravan parks by air-conditioned bus, driven by informed and light-hearted drivers.
Around the back of the Willie Creek pearl farm, a white helicopter is lifting-off with three passengers for a seven-minute scenic flight over the area. It will cost them $90 each – a reasonable sum that opens the way for first-time chopper passengers.
Our cheery Italian pilot, who has choppered all around the world, steers the aircraft over the creek and along the coast. Manta rays are commonly seen, plus dolphins, whales and perhaps a turtle. Flying low over Willie Creek, passengers have their eyes peeled for saltwater crocodiles that have settled-in.
Turning inland, the pilot heads to a regular waterhole where wild brumbies are drinking. Cattle, in big numbers, are just along the track. After a record wet, they are tucking-in to grasses that will make them fat and tasty for American hamburgers.
Tourists here can take a 15-minute chopper flight for $180 or opt for an air-transfer back to Broome for $295.
We are happy to bump back to Broome by bus. But first there is a short lecture on what we are about to do, including a boat ride up the creek to pull-in and inspect demonstrator farmed pearl shells.
Tour guide Matt runs through the exhaustive stages of pearl farming. This is done by pearl companies, their divers and technicians, along 800 kms of coast and stretching several kilometres out to sea.
Markings along the river bank, high above us, show where 10-metre tides have deposited everything that floats. The amazing tidal movements, with nutrient-rich and unpolluted waters, create the perfect environment to create some of the world’s best pearls.
After morning tea that includes fresh damper, we visit the onsite pearl showroom where all varieties are shown and where, of course, we are invited to buy a souvenir or gift. You don’t have to seek perfection. There truly are pearls and shells to suit the budget-conscious.
Tour guide Sean holds up a classic beauty that meets buyers’ high demands for size, shape, complexion, lustre and colour. It’ll cost a working man several years’ pay.
Sean, a master underwater diver, may be Canadian but he’s full bottle-bottle on the process of producing Australian South Sea Cultured Pearls.
The Banfield family has operated and built-up Willie Creek Pearl Farm since 1989, the days of the legendary Pommy developer Lord McAlpine. Pearling came to Broome in 1880s and at its peak had a 400-strong lugger fleet.
Around 1895 two Japanese men (the Mikimoto name is still associated with pearls) perfected the technique of inserting a shell bead nucleus into the living oyster to produce a loose pearl.
We learn that a pearl is a calcareous blob, formed by the living oyster. The mollusk coats itself with layers of nacre to protect itself from an irritant. Human approved perfectly-round pearls form naturally, but rarely, in nature.
Farmed oysters hurry-up the process, modelling pearls to our tastes. It’s a rare case of humans outdoing nature. Between cultured and natural pearls, customers can’t tell the difference.
Willie Creek Pearl Farm tours cost adults $75, concession $65, children $40 (under-5s free) or with coach Broome pick-up (recommended) adults $120, concession $100, children $65 (under-5s free).