Pamela Wright heads into the heart of the Kimberley to learn more about our indigenous cultural heritage, take a camel trek, spot a giant emu and brave a swinging tea billy.
Leaning against his 4WD, waiting patiently for his early morning passengers to arrive, tour guide Rob Bamkin is keen to get this Purely Unreal Kimberley adventure on the road. There’s a fair drive ahead – about three hours to the Aboriginal community of Jarlmadangah.
As we head out of Broome towardsDerby, past mango plantations and pearl farms, Rob explains that we’ll be travelling through cattle country before crossing theFitzroyRiverto Jarlmadangah. A story on the way sets the scene.
“A few weeks ago, three Aboriginal boys from the community who work with me spotted a huge goanna on the side of the road,” says Rob. “‘Stop! Let’s catch it!’ said Canny. It was a bloody big barni [goanna]!”
So they hopped out of the Troopy [4WD], and, to cut a long story short, they killed it, popped it in a bag and took it home to throw on the barbie for dinner.
By midday, we stop for lunch (not goanna, thankfully) with local Nyikina men before heading off on a camel trek through the majestic Grant Ranges, led by community elder Harry and his grandson TJ. Eight sure-footed animals take an hour and a half to quietly steer us through the bush. My camel, Armilla, handles the loose stone track well – there’s only one tiny slip, which feels exaggerated from my seat way up high.
“Going down hill, they got no brakes,” chuckles TJ. But all is well because TJ’s an expert cameleer.
We stop to check out a boab nut. “It’s a sweet, dry fruit with ten times the vitamin C of an orange,” says TJ’s mate Angus. We find it… edible. The young root is OK when finely sliced – like fresh bamboo used in Thai cookery.
As we plod across a creek bed, TJ shares his passion for Aussie Rules, especially Essendon footy club. “I’ve barracked for them since I was born, I reckon,” he says proudly. Gavin Wanganeen was named young Aboriginal Sports Star of the Year in 1993, then there’s Che Cockatoo Collins, Leroy Jetta and Dean Rioli. “They’re all great,” he says. It’s evident just how popular the game is around here. Kids kick the Sherrin wherever and whenever possible.
In the afternoon, swags and comfortable dome tents are set up before we head to a billabong for an afternoon fishing expedition to catch cherabin – local freshwater prawns – and barramundi. Reasonably lucky, we catch a dozen prawns and one barra to add to the night’s barbecue of chicken, steak and snags.
Around the campfire, under a star-filled open sky, Harry and some of the “boys” explain the constellations. We expect to hear about the Southern Cross, but TJ pops out with, “Have you ever seen the emu in the sky?”
He leads us out of the campfire’s light to search for the Milky Way, then points upwards. At first I can’t make it out but gradually it becomes apparent when he says, “Don’t look at the stars. Just concentrate on the dark shadows in between.”
Kimberley Dreamtime Adventure Tours (KDAT) is fully owned by the Jarlmadangah Aboriginal Community. It was formed in 1987 when elders John and Harry Watson sought to maintain the traditional language, law and culture to pass on to younger generations. Although Nyikina is the traditional language here, Mangala was introduced when Aborigines came from the desert to work at a pastoral station, so both languages now coexist.
Now working with Kimberley Aviation Air Safaris, KDAT restricts visitor numbers and no other tour groups have access to the community. This makes each trip personal, special and exclusive.
Next day after brekkie, we hike to an ancient site on top of Grant Ranges, with rock art, carvings and great views. One of the women shed. We’re shown the community’s history and culture via displays of tools, weaponry, skin groups and bush tucker, such as the Marsdenia viridiflora or bush banana. For a town with a total population of 70, Jarlmadangah has a well-equipped school with 30 pupils. Once a week they have Cultural Day, when elders teach the kids how to fish, make boomerangs and paint.
Now I don’t know about you, but indigenous Aussies and billy tea didn’t naturally go together in my mind before I set out on this expedition, so it’s fascinating when we arrive at a rock art site to see TJ and Angus have a billy on the boil. Interrupting a story about his land and people, TJ adds the tea leaves and Angus starts the swinging procedure. Rob politely suggests that it might be safer to swing it away from us. Angus coyly changes direction.
Jarlmadangah is a well-respected community where the elders run a disciplined ship with humour and much storytelling. No alcohol is allowed here, unlike other communities in the area.
“We look after each other,” says Harry. “We also take tourism seriously. Along with decent education, tourism will help keep us together as a strong community.”
On our final stop we visit an ancient living site at the foot of the Grant Ranges, where TJ tells a Dreaming story about a spirit called Bulugnun.
“There are two Bulugnuns – a good one and a bad one. The bad one lives in this area, and if you’re walking around this country he will mess with your mind. He will get you lost, change the look of the country and move things around. If you get really lost he grabs you and locks you up in a big boab tree. Then he feeds you with horrible things like grasshoppers, spiders and snakes to fatten you up. Then he eats you.”
TJ points to a large painting on the rock ledge. “That’s the bad one! But the good Bulugnun will help you and look after you when you’re lost. He’ll help you find your way.” He points to another, smaller painting of the same spirit.“He’s gotta be the good one ’cos he’s got little kids’ hands around him.”
This tour is for those who, like me, want to experience the Kimberley with total authenticity. It’s raw, unrehearsed and, as its name suggests, “purely unreal”.