Warwick Sprawson follows a traditional Aboriginal song cycle near Broome and discovers a region – and culture – under threat
As we leave our camp at Yellow River, three brolgas step across the river mouth. Two chest-high birds walk side-by-side, while a smaller bird, perhaps an offspring, paces behind. All three walk regally along the great sickle of beach, south towards Broome.
We are also heading south. This is the first day of our five-day, 73 kilometre walk to Broome along the Lurujarri Heritage Trail. We are quickly discovering this trail is different to anything we have done before. There are no tracks, no markers, no facilities and few signs, yet this is far from a new walk – indigenous people have been walking this route for at least 6000 years, following the path of the Dreamtime beings who created these broad beaches, pindan forests, tidal rivers and red cliffs (see breakout box, Walking with the Goolarabooloo).
Cowrie and trochus shells form a necklace along the water’s edge. A light breeze sends spinifex seeds tumbling across the sand and into the shallows. Although it’s early in the morning, it’s already warm. Yasmin, my walking companion, skirts higher up the beach to avoid disturbing a group of tiny red-capped plovers.
For several hours we walk without a word, listening to the sound of waves toppling gently into the sand. Although some of the route is accessible by 4WD, we see no cars and no other people. We pass Coulomb Point and Flat Rock. Brown-footed boobies fly low over the water and plunge into the sea after fish. The beach becomes lined with cliffs, the soft sandstone weathered into patterns like the roots of a fig. The sandstone is a striking lava-red, seeming to glow from within, a vibrant border drawn all the way to James Price Point (Walmadan) in the blue distance.
By noon, still short of the James Price Point, the temperature has hit the mid-30s and even the sleeves of my shirt are soaked with sweat. In a break in the cliffs we find a monsoon vine thicket in the lee of a dune. These threatened thickets, a relic from the time when the Dampier Peninsula was covered in rainforest, are important to the indigenous people for their rich wildlife, abundant bush tucker and range of traditional medicines. We gratefully drop our packs beneath the dense shade of a mamajen tree.
Later in the afternoon when the temperature has dropped a little we continue along the beach. A dolphin keeps pace with us 40 metres offshore. This coast is so remote that knowledge of its marine, plant and animal life is far from complete. Scientists recently discovered a new variety – or maybe species – of dwarf spinner dolphin with a mature size of just 1.5 metres.
We pass a sandstone pillar topped with a nest the size of a truck tyre. A fluffy white chick looks out from the rough circle of sticks while a parent circles overhead – the distinctive cream belly and dappled wings of an osprey.
We finally reach James Price Point, a promontory of black rock guarded by a cluster of sooty oyster catchers. A spray-painted sign on the cliff reads ‘No gas’, a reference to the LNG (Liquid Natural Gas) refinery proposed for this area by Woodside Petroleum and its joint venture partners Shell, PetroChina, Mitsubishi, Mitsui and BP. Two kilometres further down the beach we find the entrance to Camp Walmadan, the protest base against the refinery, marked by an Aboriginal flag atop a sand dune. We climb the dune, footsore after a 20 kilometre day, and enter the camp.
A sign invites us to ‘come in for a cuppa and a chat about country’. Beneath the trees a kitchen area is equipped with gas rings, stainless steel benches, old fridges to store food and a sink. Two dozen tents dot the pindan bush around the kitchen. Uncle Eric of the Goolarabooloo sits beside a cooking fire. He welcomes us and explains the fight against the refinery is not just a fight to protect this land but a fight for the survival of his culture. Over a shared dinner members of the camp explain some of the problems with locating a gas refinery here (see breakout box, James Price Point: National park or refinery?)
After eating we enjoy a swim and watch the setting sun make a neon halo across the horizon. Climbing the dune back to camp the quiet is broken by the drone of a diesel generator. The sound comes from Woodside’s floodlit compound 500 metres away. Behind the compound’s chainlink fence strips of bush have been bulldozed for surveying and drilling, the first stage of the 30 square kilometre refinery.
The next morning we continue south along the beach, the sand lightly embossed with the tracks of hermit crabs. Today we don’t walk alone – both Yasmin and I have loyal entourages: envelopes of flies, who tenaciously follow us all day. After seven kilometres we reach Murdudun, marked with two viewing platforms on the edge of a cliff. The platforms are busy with people peering intently out to sea with binoculars. As we make our way towards them there is a unified gasp. I turn in time to see a humpback whale, perhaps 400 metres offshore, hang in the air an instant before crashing back into the ocean. The people on the platforms cheer.
Marine biologist Maddie Goddard explains this is the Walmadan Active Research Collective, a community effort to gather information about the coast’s abundant marine life, in particular humpback whales and – in season – flatback, hawksbill and green turtles. The people toting binoculars are volunteers gathering data on the number, location and behaviour of whales and calves as they migrate along the coast between July and September. The research is another facet of the James Price Point campaign – gathering evidence of the marine life which would be affected by the refinery.
Maddie puts the binoculars back to her eyes and scans the sea. ‘The official report from Woodside estimated about 1000 whales passed within eight kilometres of the coast during the migration season. Our figures suggest approximately 8600 whales pass within that distance.’ She sighs. ‘It’s a sad day when volunteers are left to provide accurate data.’
Back on the beach our attention remains out to sea, spotting whales, so we almost walk into the man in white. Apart from a wild beard, sunburnt face and intense blue eyes he is covered from head to toe in white: white sneakers, white pants, white shirt, white gloves and white hat.
‘I’m dying for a smoke. Have you seen any buoys?’ He pats the pair of plastic fishing floats strung over his shoulder.
Although I don’t see the connection, I tell him about a couple of floats we saw washed up a few kilometres further along the beach.
His eyes gleam. ‘I get $10 per buoy. Four buoys’ll be enough for some grub and smokes.’ He thanks us and insists we take a hunk of damper each before hurrying away. The damper is soft and delicious, studded with dried fruit.
After our daily shade break, we reach Quondong Point (Kardilakan). Accessible by 4WD, it’s popular with Broome residents seeking a good fishing spot and sheltered beach. We pass several caravans dotting the cliffs above the beach before stopping for a break at some pinkish rock slabs at the edge of the sea. The afternoon sun helps pick out strange shapes imprinted in the stone. First we see ferns, each frond as sharply defined as a fishbone. Excited, we hunt further and discover footprints. Five prints are spaced about 50 centimetres apart: a three-toed creature with a foot about the size of a splayed hand. We touch them in awe. About 130 million years ago a dinosaur stepped here. Back then this country was swampy and tropical, seemingly a favourite haunt for a range of beasts who left their prints in the soft mud, mud which eventually turned to stone. Thousands of footprints from at least 16 dinosaur species have been discovered along this section of coast – including prints which would be subsumed by the James Price Point refinery. A 1.7 metre long sauropod footprint was recently discovered near here – the largest print in the world – likely to have come from a behemoth eight metres high and 35 long.
We scout further and find other types of prints including ones which look like an emu. To the Goolarabooloo these prints belong to the creation spirit called Marrala, the Emu Man, who travelled along this coast creating features and law. What we thought were the imprint of ferns are his feathers.
Pressing on, we find a camping spot in the talc-soft sand of the dunes. As we collect driftwood for our cooking fire, a white-bellied sea eagle soars overhead, close enough to see the wicked curve of its beak and the swivel of its head as it scans the ground. The chores done – tent up and wood collected – we dash across the sand into the sea. The salt water is an elixir for pack-sore shoulders and battered feet. That night there is no moon, the only light our little fire and the glitter of stars overhead.
Packing the tent in a strong breeze the next morning is a cross between comedy and desperation as we fight the flapping fabric back into its bag. Our hijinks fail to amuse the terns which watch us from the beach.
Approaching Barred Creek we leave the sand and follow a 4WD track along the cliff tops. We are relived to locate the 20 litre water cache we hid among a grove of spiral pandanus. Although we filled our bottles at the research station we are running low. In this heat we are drinking five litres each per day, and there is no more potable water until we reach Willie Creek tomorrow.
We continue inland, skirting the mud and mangroves of Barred Creek. Although the waterway can be waded at low tide, you need local knowledge and a cavalier attitude towards salt water crocs. Lacking these, we follow sandy 4WD tracks east then turn south around the upper reaches of the creek.
A muddy man emerges from the mangroves brandishing a mud crab the size of a dinner plate. The crab, the man, and Yasmin and I are all surprised to encounter one other in this remote location. The man explains he is catching mud crabs for his Sunday lunch. ‘Have you tried one? No! They’re delicious! Here, have this one, I’ve caught a few more – you can tie the bugger to the top your pack and cook him up for lunch.’ The crab’s claws are the size of a thumb and index finger. It moves them like it is longing to remove a few fingers from a clumsy tourist. We reluctantly decline his generous offer.
As we continue away from the creek the vegetation turns to pindan scrub – dry grass, lean wattles and twisted gums, all blasted by the raging sun. By noon, with a gang of red-tailed black cockatoos wheezing and shrieking in the trees, it’s too hot to go on so we shelter in the shade.
Yasmin suddenly sits up. ‘Can you smell that? Smoke.’
I can’t smell it, but the sky to the east is smudged charcoal. At this time of the year fires are common. Although the fire seems quite a distance away, we decide pack up and plunge back into the heat to continue around the creek and back towards the coast.
By late afternoon we emerge on an unnamed beach, 10 kilometres of pale sand and azure water running from the mouth of Barred Creek to Willie Creek. We are the only people along the whole lovely length.
We pitch the tent, have a swim and cook a curry on the coals of a fire. As we are rinsing the dishes we hear a series of dull echoing booms. In the distance dandelions of light bloom and fade in the evening sky. We move to the beach where the sand is still warm from the heat of the day and watch the distant fireworks in Broome.
The next morning we walk down the beach to Willie Creek Pearl Farm. We’ve booked a 9 am tour, not because we care for pearls, but because they’ve agreed drop us on the far side of Willie Creek, saving us a 17 kilometre detour. Waiting in the gift shop for the tour to start I make an attempt to smarten myself up, removing some of the larger twigs from my hair and ineffectually brushing at the ingrained dirt on my sweat-stained shirt. The rest of the tour group – retirees in pastel resort wear – coo over the shop’s pearl necklaces, earrings and bracelets. One plump strand is priced at $30,000.
Chris, our tour guide, has a thick Irish brogue and an abundance of his country’s famous charm. His account of farming the Pinctada maxima – the pearl oyster – is not only funny, but fascinating. The oysters are raised in wire racks suspended 2–3m beneath the surface of the sea to maximise nutrients and sunlight. A pearl ‘seed’ – a small bead made from of an American mussel shell – is inserted into each oyster as an irritant for the pearl to form around. Every two years the oyster is coaxed open and the pearl removed and a new pearl seed introduced. This occurs for up to eight years, with the pearls growing larger, but the likelihood of rejection growing higher. Originally, when the oysters were collected from the wild, pearls were just a by-product – the real demand was for mother of pearl buttons made from the shell. At its peak in 1910 over 400 luggers worked this coast, supplying 90% of the world’s demand for mother of pearl.
The tour includes a short cruise on Willie Creek to see how the oysters are hauled aboard and algae removed from their shells with a bit of deft blade work. The water in the creek is a vivid translucent lime, the beach blinding white, the mangroves deep green and the sky limitless blue. The colours of Broome. Hands are hastily withdrawn from the edge of the boat when Kyle, the seven foot resident salt water croc, is spotted swimming nearby.
The boat drops us at the other side of the creek and we start up Cable Beach, 22 kilometres of icing-sugar white sand leading past Broome and on to Gatheaume Point. The sun on the broad beach is so dazzling that I’m squinting behind my sunglasses. I’m forced to close my eyes entirely as we pass a 4WD and see a nude old man, as brown as bronze, bending over to examine the shells along the water’s edge.
From the increasing number of 4WDs on the beach and the sound of a jet ski in the distance we know we are approaching Broome. With the town only six kilometres away, we could easily reach our destination and stay the night in a hostel. Instead we decide to double back and look for a quiet campsite among the dunes, to keep the dreaming going for just one more night.
Breakout box: Walking with the Goolarabooloo
The Lurujarri follows a Dreamtime song cycle describing the land, how it was shaped and the laws for living within it. These song cycles not only contain creation stories, ceremonies, laws and rituals, but allow this knowledge to be passed on. The songs are still sung today.
In 1987 Paddy Roe, the Goolarabooloo’s late law boss, instigated the modern form of the Lurujarri trail as a way to get community members walking country again. Visitors were encouraged to join the Goolarabooloo to learn more about indigenous culture and make a connection with the land. This tradition continues each year, with the Goolarabooloo – supported by back-up vehicles – leading a group on a nine day, 80 kilometre walk between Yellow River and Gantheaume Point (south of Broome). The Goolarabooloo share their knowledge of the land, including bush tucker, traditional medicines and Dreamtime stories. Visit www.goolarabooloo.org.au
This story was originally published in Wild Magazine, edition 131.
(Update: Due to community pressure the destruction of James Price Point was averted in 2013. Although the threat of a gas hub has been averted, this beautiful area is still in dire need of permanent protection.)