Willie Creek Pearl Farm Tour Review
Imagine, if you will, I am comfortably stretched out on a day bed by the pool at Cable Beach Club when my wife arrives to tell me that she has organised a visit to a Pearl Farm. Not surprisingly, my first response is "What?" quickly followed by "Why?". The answer to which is that "we cannot come all the way to Broome and just lay by the pool, we need to see things". By this logic, the next time we are passing by Woking we really need to stop in at the McClaren factory. But, knowing what is good for me come 8 'clock the next morning, I am dressed and pressed and sporting a reasonably open mind as to what the day entails. Bang on the appointed hour, we (me, my wife and our 3-year old daughter) climb on board the Willie Creek Pearl Farm Bus to find out how pearls are made.
The Ride to the Farm
Willie Creek Pearl Farm is roughly a 30 - 40-minute drive north of Broome, situated at the northernmost tip of Cable Beach. We do not immediately start heading north, however, as we first have to pick up guests from other hotels around Broome. On the way, Anne, our lovely driver, gives us a rundown on the town of Broome and points out the sights, including Kerry Stokes' Broome getaway. There are also some very interesting things to learn about how Broome houses are specially constructed to withstand the cyclone season. For example, they do not have gutters, as when the rain does hit Broome it is so heavy that they would immediately overflow. And when the winds arrived, gutters would be torn off, turning them into dangerous projectiles. The picture below is of one of the Bungalows at Cable Beach Club (review) which uses the classic Broome roof design.
Once everyone is collected we start heading out of town on the Broome - Cape Leveque Road for 20 minutes before pulling off onto the unsealed Manari Road for the last part of the trip. On the way, we enjoy seeing a heard of wild horses in the bush and lots of different birdlife on the salt flats. So far, the morning is looking up; I enjoy the trivia and Anne has been a fascinating host, while the scenery is beautiful and the wildlife impressive.
Back to School
It will probably not come as a massive surprise to you that the Pearl Farm is set alongside Willie Creek. It is an absolutely stunning stretch of water that is not, in fact, a creek but a tidal estuary. As we arrive, Anne lets us know that she will be back to pick us up at 12 pm, then hands us over to our guide for the morning, Philipp.
Philipp welcomes us warmly and hands us crocodile repellant bands, which are, in reality, pink plastic bracelets with Willie Creek Pearl Farm on them. I have my suspicions that they are not going to deter a hungry crocodile. We later discover that Philipp is German, which goes a long way to explaining the sense of humour. There are 12 of us on the tour, and much to me and my wife's delight there is another little girl around our daughters' age. By the time the girls get off of the bus, they have become best friends for life. A fantastic turn of events, as now she and her new friend behave impeccably for the rest of the tour. But seriously, another big plus for the tour is that it is surprisingly kid-friendly.
Philipp runs us through a quick orientation before leading us around to the spawning shed. Once we are all seated, Philipp gives us a presentation on how WiIlle Creek grows oysters to supplement the ones that are harvested in the wild. The one thing I took away from our time at Willie Creek was a newfound appreciation for the amount of time effort and skill which goes into making a pearl. By the end of the day, I was even starting to think that they do not charge enough for these things!
Now that we have a better understanding of how oysters are grown, it was time to learn how pearls are made. Philipp gathers us up, and we head around to a covered shed at the back of the property where we settle in on benches. Philipp explains how the region's colossal ten-meter tides allow for the giant Pinctada maxima oysters to flourish. There are two types: the white-lipped and the gold-lipped. Another fascinating fact is that gold pearls, even though they are much rarer than white ones, are less valued, and thus less expensive than the white ones. We learnt that at the heart of the Australian South Sea Pearl is a freshwater Mississippi mussel shell, shaped into a sphere. This sphere is skillfully introduced into the oyster's gonad to form the nucleus of the pearl. It is around this perfectly spherical nucleus that the oyster's nacre (mother-of-pearl) adheres, forming a flawlessly round pearl. As you can tell, considering my misgivings about my outing, I was having a great time and absorbed more information than in a semester at uni.
Philipp went on to highlight the different virtues to look for in a pearl: the size, shape, colour, complexion and lustre. To better make his point, he handed us a selection of different examples to examine. It was only at the end that Philipp let us know the prices of the different pearls—it was a bit like Escape to the Country. The big finale of the presentation was when Philipp opened an oyster and out popped a pretty decent sized pearl!
With the end of the presentation, Philipp invited us to head up to the main building to enjoy some morning tea. Refreshments were tea and coffee as well as some beautiful homemade damper bread. The farm hosts two tours a day, and I suspect that it is the afternoon one who gets to enjoy the famous Matso's Mango & Ginger beers.
Off to the Boat
Refreshed and eager to learn more, Philipp collected us and took us down to the jetty to board our boat so that we could get a better look at the oyster lines. Now, while I do like to tweak my photos with photoshop, I can honestly say that the water in Willie Creek is truly this blue.
Once safely onboard, we headed out to the two lines in the middle of the Creek. Philipp explained that these lines were expressly for the purpose of the tours, and the main production lines are located further offshore. Also, due to the resident saltwater crocodiles and sharks, they were pretty well guarded.
Once we had tied up to one of the lines, Philipp pulled up one of the oyster nets to show us how they hang in the water. You can see that they sit with the hinge of the shell facing downwards so that if for any reason the pearl falls out, then there is a good chance that it will be caught. The oysters are secured by "oyster seatbelts", which looked suspiciously like cable ties to me, but Philipp assured us they were unique to the pearl industry.
The manual effort which goes into looking after the oysters was really brought home to me on the boat. The oysters apparently need regular cleaning to ensure the health of the farm as, without it, the farm would very quickly cease to exist. Cleaning involves the oysters being pulled up in their nets and fed into a high-pressure washer to remove the soft growth, but then the hard growth needs to be dealt with. In the picture above, you can see Philipp holding a good-sized metal bar. It is with bars like these that the "oyster cleaning technicians" will scrape every oyster top and bottom before it is returned to the lines. Philipp assured us that it was lots of fun and that we should sign up for a stint on the cleaning boats the next time we were up.
To better explain to us the different predators and pests that target oysters, Philipp showed us the shells of oysters which had been affected by growths, as well as worms preserved in bottles. It was all charmingly gruesome, and the kids loved it! Basically, anything which compromises the shell or stops the oyster from feeding is bad and needs to go, highlighting the importance of regular cleaning.
Once Philipp had finished taking questions, we unmoored from the line, and it was time for the wildlife component of the boat ride. Unfortunately, we did not see any of the resident saltwater crocodiles, though we did see some great birdlife in the form of large brolgas (cranes). Philipp also showed us the other place apart from the town of Broome that the pearl luggers used to come to replenish their provisions. Apparently, the masters much preferred it to Broome, as they found it was much easier to muster the crew when it was time to leave. This may have had a lot to do with the fact that it was essentially a large flat rock with not a brothel as far as the eye could see.
In the above picture, you can see a white helicopter flying low over the mangrove trees. While at the Pearl Farm you can organise to go on an aerial tour of the surrounding area in this helicopter, otherwise it can be chartered to fly you back to Broome.
The last stop
Once back on dry land, we meet up inside the main building at the jewellery shop. Here Philipp shows us the end product of all the years of hard work and explains to us how best to look after Pearls. Being a product of water, they benefit from the moisture and oils that they pick up off of your skin, so they like being worn. There is a lot of good humour amongst the group as Philipp has us try on ever more expensive strands of Pearls.
With the tour officially over, we are let loose in the shop to explore. The shop is split into Australia South Sea Pearls, Keshi Pearls, South Sea Pearls, Tahitian Pearls, Freshwater Pearls and Gold Pearls. There are also charming souvenirs such as the polished oyster shells in nets, perfect for hanging on the patio.
Once everyone had finished shopping, it was time to climb on the bus for the ride back. Well, for everyone apart from the couple who caught the helicopter back to Broome—ah to be travelling without little ones. Needless to say, my family left clutching a small orange bag with a couple of boxes inside. And while none of the boxes contained anything for me, I still left Willie Creek feeling extremely satisfied. Considering I had not been wildly enthusiastic when first told about the outing, I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the tour and would highly recommend it. If you are up in Broome and are looking to take in some beautiful scenery and learn about a fascinating industry, then the Willie Creek Pearl Farm Tour is a must. I would never have believed that it takes four years to make a pearl from scratch, or that they need constant maintenance. I must also make a special point to thank Philipp, who made the day. He was kind, charming, professional and totally engaging, and if he is representative of the staff at Willie Creek, then they must be a fantastic place to work for.
As always, if you have any questions, please do not hesitate to leave them in the comments section below and I will do my best to answer them.
If you would like to find out more about the tour here is a link to the official Willie Creek Tour information page on their website.
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