41[Low, James Galloway, Letters, 1904-91, Battye Library, ACC 2612A (listing: MN 681), Letter from Jim to his friend Peggy, 09 May 1909]

The Adelaide Steamship Co. Ltd. S.S. Koombana, Port Fremantle 9th May 1909

Dear Peggy,

We just arrived here this afternoon, the end of our second trip up the Nor’-West, I found quite a lot of letters waiting, seven in all, yours included, it comes home to me that I have been very lazy lately. I intended to get one off to you when we were here three weeks ago and failed, the mail goes out tomorrow evening. With luck I’ll catch it if not the letter will have to wait a week for the next.

We have been very unfortunate these two trips, first in Shark’s Bay we ran on a sandbank at full speed and stuck there for over a fortnight, had to send down to Fremantle for a ship to help us off it was a long hard job. Then this last trip shortly after leaving Broome we struck a reef, at full speed again and bumped clear over it knocking at least one hole in the bottom, of course we are built with a double bottom which was the only thing that saved us from going right under. I was on watch at the time and the third time she struck it was right under the engine room nearly stopping the engines up dead then the stern lifted up and she raced off and lay over on her side, I thought it was all up with her but she righted up again. There has been a diver down today to find out the damage but we dont know yet how serious it is. If he can’t fix it off we will have to go round to Melbourne or Sydney to dry dock.

The premier of W. Australia did the trip with us this time. There was a party of them up spying out the Nor-West and hearing complaints from the inhabitants. Last night the whole mob of them came down the Engine Room and had a look around at the various marvels.

I like this coast very well, or rather the section that we saw. The scenery isn’t much to boast of principally sand hills and small scrub and the various towns we touch at are somewhat primitive nearly all the buildings are of corrugated iron. Broome is the best of the lot there are some trees there, it is the big centre for the pearling industry of the Nor-West and there is a big fleet of pearling luggers there inhabited by a most cosmopolitan crowd. The smell of the pearl oysters isn’t so bad there as they open them at sea coming into port for the weekends. It is principally the shell they dive for. They don’t get so many pearls on the local banks but the shell is worth £150 to £200 a ton. A good deal of our cargo along the coast is shell, done up in cases and bags, for the home markets.

Shark’s Bay is another of the pearling centres. They bring the oysters ashore and rot them in the sun before opening them and the stink—well it beats anything you could imagine in your wildest flights of fancy, rotten eggs is perfume to it. Still they say it is not unhealthy. I don’t know, anyway that beach is an offence. The shell in Shark’s Bay is poor but the pearls are good. I sat down one day and watched the black gins (aboriginal women) going through and opening the shells till I felt faint. They got a pearl every dozen shells or so mostly small ones. They scrape the putrid remnants of the oyster into what they call gogley pots and this after a further rotting process is boiled down and the pearls raked out at the bottom. These gogley pots are the climax. They cry out aloud to one another. In case we went away with false impressions of Shark’s Bay one of the inhabitants took an oar and stirred one up, for the next few seconds nothing much mattered. We blindly fought our way to a sandhill well to windward and looked at that pot. Nobody said anything for some time but everybody felt queer. A black gin sitting near the pot threw her nose upwards sniffed approvingly and gently murmured “exbishin scent, bery goodt”.

We carry a motor launch about 30ft long and when we ran aground in Shark’s Bay it was got out to go to the nearest telegraph station which luckily happened to be only about 14 miles away at a place called Port Denham. The Chief went to drive her and I went to do the work. The Skipper and Purser went to send the telegram, three passengers went for excitement and two quarter masters were carried to bale her out etc. There was a lifebelt for each man, a case of beer and a basket of sandwiches. We got ashore all right in about an hour and a half, most miserable looking wretches soaked to the skin, the weather got bad soon after we left the ship. The inhabitants lent us clothes while our own dried in the sun. When evening came the weather was too bad to go back so we had to stop in the tin hotel that night. The inhabitants thought it was up against them to entertain us so gave a ball and party in a tin shed. All the ladies turned up, the daughters and wives of the pearlers, the wife of the policeman etc etc.

There is no class distinction in Shark’s Bay except between White and Black. We had a most enjoyable evening and broke up about 3am. I had to turn out at 5 o’clock to go out with the two sailors and bring the motor in. She was moored out about half a mile. We started back for the ship in good style and halfway out ran short of petrol and had to sail her the rest of the way, a most ignominious return. We were away about 30 hours from the ship. I made an even worse fiasco with her. I was told off one morning at 7 o’clock to go in to Port Denham for ten sheep as we were running short of provisions. I had the 5th Engineer with me and two quarter masters. We got ashore, got the sheep and lugged them out on our shoulders through water up to the waist and dumped them into the launch. When we got out a couple of miles the weather got so bad we had to turn and run for it back to anchorage. We slept out on hard gratings with bits of canvas over us to keep the dew off, a most uncomfortable night, fine and clear but a heavy swell running kept us bobbing like a cork till we were bruised and bumped all over. The poor sheep were worse than we were as we had to hobble them to keep them aboard.

Next morning the weather was better but the boat had taken in water during the night and spoiled our starting battery and there we were 14 miles from the Koombana and not a move out of our engine. So we sailed back and got towed a bit by a lighter that was going out to the ship and when about a mile off, the battery recovered sufficiently to give us a start, then we were all right. We snored up alongside at full speed and the passengers lined up the rails and considered us as returned from the dead. We were nearly dead anyway, nothing to eat for about 30 hours. By good luck we had a little tank of water with us so we weren’t thirsty anyway.

The magnates of Shark’s Bay take the cake. They live in corrugated iron shanties, making absurd additions as the family grows. They send out their pearling boats on Mondays and welcome them back on Friday nights sometimes clearing as much as £3000 in a year. The sons as soon as they are big enough go out with the boats. The daughters are sent round to the big schools in Melbourne and Sydney whence they return “finished” bringing with them the comforts of civilization in the shape of grand pianos, sewing machines and new fangled naptha stoves, and make pathetic attempts to disguise the baldness of the paternal mansion with pictures and muslin fripperies. Then try to import plants which gradually fade away and great spiders inches long make nests in the remnants and spin marvellous webs on them, great fat vicious spiders with scarlet bodies and long black legs, regular nightmares.

And the flies, when dinner is put on the table one has to look sharp or nothing will be left. Milk and sugar have to be kept in fly proof muslin covers. From the ceilings they suspend bushes of scrub in order that the flies may perch on them and not destroy the paint work. People merely exist in places like that. The only thing they have to look forward to is a trip South every year. Everyone goes South once a year. They develop into dreamy, sad-eyed, drawling folk who think profoundly between each step, the sea on one side and the everlasting sandhills behind, not so everlasting either as they shift around with the wind.

Our ports are Fremantle, Geraldton, Shark’s Bay, Carnarvon, Onslow, Cossack, Port Hedland, Broome, Derby and Wyndham. Broome is a nice little place. A couple of us went ashore for a quick look around there one Sunday and met the Mayor in his shirt sleeves, drunk as an owl, insisted on doing the honours and showing us all the sights. We had a tremendous job to shake him. In the end he had to see the Premier a couple of hours afterwards and make a speech, I would like to have heard that speech myself. They are very hospitable people in Broome. Though we knew nobody we had three separate invitations to tea before we went for the most likely looking one of which we accepted.

There is a big rise and fall in the tide at some of the northern ports, Broome and Derby particularly. The ship has to dodge in on the top of high water and sit alongside the jetty. Presently the water falls and leaves the ship sitting on the sand till at low water one can walk out nearly half a mile from the ship without wetting boots, most extraordinary spectacle. I never saw the like before. Then if we have time we go and pick up cowries and funny things under the ship, there are some very pretty shells to be had for the picking up.

Derby is principally noted for its cattle ranches inland, and its mosquitos on the coast belt. The mangroves there grow right down into the water and at high tide it has the appearance of somebody’s orchard flooded, they seem to thrive growing in the sea water too. We brought 200 fat cattle down from there this trip and 3,500 sheep from Cossack. The ‘tween decks of this ship are a sight sometimes. There is always a lot of dogs, generally a dozen horses or so, sheep, cattle, fowl of all sorts in crates, parrots and other birds in cages, black prisoners either being taken to jail or just let out, we had 25 coming down last time. It is like a menagerie generally.

At the various ports nearly everyone turns out to greet us. The droughts all line up for a cool drink while the ladies get shown round uttering incoherent ejaculations as each fresh marvel is displayed, potatoes peeled by electricity, dough mixing by electricity, knife cleaners, grub hoists, the automatic egg boilers where you set a little pointer to the number of minutes, and punctually to the second the egg is hoisted out of the water, till at the end they gasp like fish out of water.

When we stuck on the sand bank it was a sore time of trial for the men of the Nor’-West. They were waiting for fourteen days with parched tongues for the iced drinks. We couldnt make ice enough to go round.

This is Tuesday and I’ve been off duty since breakfast time. They wont pay us overtime so we are getting a day off now and again instead. I’ve done a couple of letters as it was wet. The diver reports no serious damage to the bottom so we leave tomorrow for the run up again, the diver may be right. You’ll notice we don’t get much time in port.

Wednesday. We will be going out in an hour or two so I must get this done and post it ...

You will be getting into the good weather now at home. Here we are coming into the depth of winter and I’m wearing white clothes. Yet, this is so like a nice Summer day at home. I’m afraid our Summer up the Nor-West will be a bit sultry.