The sun has dipped behind the horizon but still hundreds of tourists remain on the mangrove beach at Broome in north-western Australia. All are looking out to sea.
Slowly, a golden moon rises over the black water and a spectacular phenomenon takes place. The moonlight reflected off the mudflats makes it appear as if the moon has cast down a rope ladder.
This “staircase to the moon” can only be seen around full moon between May and October, at extreme low tide. The tidal range here, of up to 13 metres in sea level, is the largest in the southern hemisphere.
For the pearl oyster, pinctada maxima, this is the elixir of life. The shells, which grow up to 30 centimetres, derive a special size and strength from the many nutrients that are washed up.
The oysters made the town of Broome into a major global source of pearls.
“Long before the Europeans settled, my ancestors used the shells as a means of exchange in trading,” says Neville Poelina.
He lives in the outback around 200 kilometres north-east of Broome and worked as a diver in the pearling industry for 22 years.
In the late 19th century, Broome provided around 80 per cent of the world’s pinctada maxima oysters, according to the history museum in Broome.
Until WWI, around 400 special ships were used for pearl diving, raising up the giant shells with their valuable mother of pearl.
“The chance of finding a pearl was one in 5,000,” Poelina says.
Broome became wealthy off the valuable mother of pearl. Buttons, cutlery and broaches made from Broome mother of pearl were in demand the world over.
In the 1950s, Broome began pearl farming. From then on, the divers collected the giant oysters from the seabed in order to take them to pearl farms. There, a nucleus is inserted into the oyster, which gradually grows into a pearl.
An educational trail leads to the history museum, taking in a series of display boards, a memorial on the beach and another little museum before finally ending at the pier.
Several metres further on is a gallery, in which some of the world’s most beautiful pearls are available to admire and purchase.
Working in the pearling industry, Poelina earned enough money to start up as an Aboriginal tour provider for tourists. Along with his wife Joanne, he now guides visitors from all over the world through the region.
From the Tombstone Flats with its thousands of termite mounds, the tour advances through red and ochre-coloured desert areas. Then the landscape changes to thick-growing bamboo with eucalyptus, Australian tea trees, figs and lianas.
Neville Poelina stops repeatedly and explains the medicinal value of flowers, fruits, leaves, bark and roots.
“This is my pharmacy,” he says smiling.
For sundown, he guides his four-wheel-drive to Skeleton Lake.
His daughter Angelina, 9, and son Simon, 11, are now along for the ride. During the day they take school lessons at the computer via satellite.
Simon emulates his father â€“ he already knows more than 100 plant species, can drive the pickup and knows how to use a gun. Now, he skilfully casts a net and collects shrimp for the evening meal at the campfire.
After two-and-a-half-days, it’s back to Broome. In the harbour on board the Paspaley IV, young men are preparing for the next trip. The ship is equipped with the latest machines.
As in days gone by, it goes out to Eighty Mile Beach in the south to collect oyster shells. But these days, the nucleus is already inserted while the shell is on board.
Once the collecting tanks filled with sea water are packed, the precious cargo is transported to the pearl farms in the north.
Hundreds of miles of wild, uninhabited coastline provide the best conditions for growth. Crystal-clear water guarantees pearls of exceptional quality, considered the most beautiful in the world.
On a flight along the coast, the colours and shapes of the coral and sandbanks are striking. Down below, the oysters in the farms coat one layer of mother of pearl after another around the nucleus, until after two years, the pearl can finally be