Alison Brown shares incredible memories of early days of Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm

Written on the 19 July 2017

Alison Brown shares incredible memories of early days of Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm

Living in a small beach hut with walls cladded in bark from local paper bark trees, no tv, telephone or mail service, and electricity for only a few hours per day, Alison Brown fought bush fires by hand, stood firm in the path of cyclones and reminisces about the 'glamorous' days of being a pearler.

Alison Brown was a 19-year-old university student when she followed her heart, married a pearl farmer and moved to a bush hut on the Dampier Peninsula 2500km away from her wheatbelt home in Brookton. 

Almost 50 years later, in her naturally humble and understated way, Alison shares some of her experiences as a wife, mother, friend and more often than not, Commander-in-Chief at the Cygnet Bay pearl farm - home to the Browns.

It all began when Alison met a strapping young student accountant named Bruce Brown at a party in Perth.  Life as she knew it was to change forever.  An invitation arrived soon to visit the Browns at Cygnet Bay, a remote pearl farm located some 1900km further north in WA than she had ever previously ventured.

Bruce and his brother Lyndon Brown greeted Alison and her girlfriend off the fligtht to Broome, where they piled into a Ford truck and headed off on the long drive to Cygnet Bay along the dusty pindan road.  Alison recalls vividly her first impressions.

"We arrived at the pearl farm camp after dark and driving in the dirt track lined with paper bark trees I remember seeing the twinkling of candle ligths from the bark huts and the glow of small campfires down the beach."
For some people, this may have been a moment of 'where on earth have I come to?' But for Alison, it was a magical impression and the start of her deep and enduring love of Cygnet Bay.

In those early days they lived in a small hut near the beach with the walls and roof clad in bark from the local paper bark trees.  No windows, just large shutters to let the breeze cool you down; no fly-screen or anything else to deter the insects or any of the wildlife from entering.

There was no TV until 1975, no telephone until 1986, initially no RFDS or two-way radio - not even contact with Derby or Broome, and no mail service.  They only had electricity for a few hours each day to power lights and the communal washing machine under a tree.  The closest town was hundreds of kilometres away along a dusty dirt road that was graded just once a year, and it could take up to six hours to drive 240km in the wet season.

Fighting bush fires by hand; standing firm in the path of cyclones; managing medical emergencies, being the mother and boss of an isolated bush village when her husband was away for weeks at a time on the pearling boat, and often being the only white woman in the camp - all of these things were part of the ebb and flow of daily life for Alison.  It was hard, but it was home.

Many Indigenous families lived and worked at Cygnet Bay.  Among them Bardi women from the Wiggan, Hunter, Albert, Dixon and McCarthy families were some who provided Alison with company while their husbands worked at sea, away for weeks at a time. "The Aboriginal women were wonderful.  We had a lot of fun together and they tried to take the mickey out of me the whole time.  Biddy (Albert) and Margaret (Hunter) would come past my hut and yell out to go fishing with them.  I would watch them pick up live bait on the way, work their hand lines, grab an octopus and twist it so it couldn't move and I remember thinking - wow, this is my world!"

Read more about Alison's story in the Australian Pearl Magazine, available for online order from Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm or purchase in their Dampier Terrace boutique.

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