Walking in the footsteps of the legendary Jandamarra, in the Kimberley. By Karen Halabi.

Kimberley’s underground history

The spectacular pools within Tunnel Creek.
Credit: Rhonda Buitenhuis

The dark figure crouching amid the cavernous walls of Tunnel Creek raises his clap sticks and starts to chant as he sings for country.

Aboriginal folk hero Jandamarra knew the country of his Bunuba tribe like the back of his hand, and so does Jimmy (“Dillon”) Andrews, a traditional Bunuba land owner.

Tunnel Creek, or “Baraah”, is halfway between Derby and Fitzroy Crossing, in Western Australia’s north. A group of us are following Dillon through the oldest cave system in the state. This is where Jandamarra ran to recover after suffering near fatal wounds in the Battle of Windjana Gorge in 1897. 

I’ve come here to the spiritual heart of the Kimberley, after seeing Jandamarra’s story performed at the Sydney Opera House by the Yilimbirri Ensemble and the Gondwana Choirs backed by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Just as the performance symbolised a coming together of cultures and traditions, so does Dillon’s Tagalong tour. He is one of many Indigenous operators in the West Kimberley who today are making a living from teaching visitors about the past, and telling stories about the land and its Indigenous owners.

The tours and accommodation are operations run under the umbrella of the Western Australian Aboriginal Tourism Operators Council for the benefit of local communities.

During a week spent touring these communities, I go mud-crabbing in mangroves near Chile Creek with the Sibosado brothers and spearfishing on the Dampier Peninsula en route to Cape Leveque.

Gary Sibosado is one of the brothers who runs the tourist encampment at Lombadina. Located on beautiful Thomas Bay, a spectacular deserted white beach, Lombadina is listed as one of the 10 great Indigenous cultural experiences in Australia.

I wade in gumboots through mangrove swamps, following the charismatic Gary up Chile Creek while he checks mangrove tree roots, prodding and tapping with a long metal pole, listening for the scurrying of crabs. Sometimes the pole makes a drum-like sound and he grabs a claw, or we pluck a cluster of oysters from a barely submerged tree branch.

Back at Lombadina we throw the catch of the day into a boiling pot of water over an open fire. They are the best mud crab and oysters I’ve ever eaten, by a country mile.

Accommodation at Lombadina is in converted shipping containers adjacent to the community. It may not be luxury, but the location is magnificent. There’s a church, local store, bakery and workshop, and the profits go straight into the community.

The ocean is pivotal in the lives of the Bardi people, Gary tells us over a campfire, as a source of food and spiritual significance. Evidence of their saltwater heritage can be seen in their art – in the workshop cum art studio, Gary makes exquisite pearl shell designs and spears for fishing.

At nearby Kooljaman on a four-wheel-drive bush-tucker Tagalong safari tour, local character Brian Lee shows us how to stalk and spear fish in Hunters Creek. We cook our catch, still on the spears, over an open fire built on a midden of old shellfish and fish.

Kooljaman is a remote wilderness camp on Cape Leveque run jointly by the Djarindjin and One Arm Point communities. It’s a similar concept with more upmarket tourist accommodation, everything from deluxe safari tents with a bush butler service, to rustic cabins and humpy-style beach shelters.

At Mimbi caves near Geikie Gorge, Rosemary Nugget of Girloorloo Tours operates another 100 per cent Aboriginal-owned and operated tourist business. Rosemary shows us the women’s birthing cave, cave paintings and other sacred sites within the limestone karst caves and demonstrates how grevillea was burnt to make the charcoal used to darken and hide half-caste children so they would not be taken away. 

Rosemary also performs a welcome to country ceremony, required before entering traditional lands, to announce visitors to the spirits. Dillon does the same smoking ritual before bringing us into the caves at Tunnel Creek.

Dillon makes a fire using saplings then throws conkerberry bush leaves onto it to produce thick smoke. He tells us to walk in a line around the smoke, clapping our hands.

Earlier that day, flying from Derby over Geikie Gorge with Kimberley Aviation, into the heart of the West Kimberley, I’d looked down from our light aircraft and marvelled how at one time the Kimberley had been underwater. It formed the seabed of an ancient Devonian reef system, a fossilised barrier reef from 350 million years ago that includes the eroded cliffs, fossilised rock formations, weaving waterways, caves and tunnels of Geikie and Windjana gorges and Tunnel Creek.

Tunnel Creek flows through a huge water-worn tunnel beneath the limestone of the Napier Range. Inside one of the ancient underground cave systems, we follow the water past limestone pools and stalagmites, keeping our eyes open for ghost bats, olive pythons and freshwater crocodiles. The air is thick with moisture. I breathe it in deeply, awed by its connection to the ages.

We come to the exit at the southern end of the tunnel and Dillon beckons us to sit near the opening. The sunlight pours into the dark passages, illuminating his features. His eyes are as liquid as the pools that surround us as he starts to recount the moving and tragic tale of a man torn between two worlds.

Jandamarra was “conscripted” as a black tracker to find, incarcerate and even kill his fellow Aborigines. Dillon had shown us earlier where his people were chained up at nearby Lillmaloora Police Outpost, out in the hot sun.

Jandamarra led an uprising, leading the Bunuba in a kind of guerilla campaign – one of the few documented armed insurrections against European settlement in Australia. Evading capture for a long time in country he knew well, Jandamarra acquired a legendary reputation for his “mystical” survival abilities. He is still revered by the Bunuba people. 

Water dripping from stalactites flows down the walls, forming beautiful luminescent curtains of glimmering flowstones and even, in one spot, a rock altar. A cool breeze silently pushes into the cave, sending a chill down my neck as Dillon starts to speak again. His words echo off the wet limestone walls.

“In my school, we learnt about Christopher Columbus – white man’s history. This is the real history; what happened here on the land. But that’s behind us now – let’s go forward. If the country doesn’t have a vision, it will perish.”

“This walk we just did,” he says, gesturing back into the tunnel, “is so some good might come of this tragedy.

“There’s plenty of room for both of us to live and work together in the cattle industry, working the land, in tourism… Whitefellas and blackfellas together working on joint ventures that don’t harm the land.”

As we emerge from the tunnel into daylight a goanna bustles off into the bush. “Goannas now nearly all gone because of the cane toads,” Dillon says. “You know who brought the cane toads? You mob.”

We nod as he herds us into the Bungoolee tour bus for the last stop of the tour – Windjana Gorge, six kilometres east. The river that runs through the gorge snakes its way between steep sandstone cliffs, bright orange from the oxidised iron ore in the limestone. Dillon stops to point out the cave in which Jandamarra hid. It is perched as high as the canyon walls of the gorge – close to 50 metres up. It’s hard to imagine anyone climbing to it. 

We follow the trail that winds along the edge of the water and arrive at a large open space. This is the spot where Jandamarra had his “awakening”. Realising that what he is doing is wrong, he turned and became a resistance leader defying the white man’s law and occupation.

“Sometimes young men die for their country,” says Dillon, “for making it strong again.”

He urges us to come back to see the next theatrical performance of Jandamarra here in the gorge where the real-life events played out. One such performance took place here in 2011, a powerful mix of song and dance, didgeridoos and recitations, and Dillon is keen to see it happen again.

I have to agree. An on-site performance would be so much more powerful than one faraway in the gleaming Sydney Opera House. We stand on the riverbank, below the towering walls of Windjana, surrounded by its natural amphitheatre.

Dillon looks skyward and starts to chant: “Jandamarra, ngalanybarra muwayi (Sing for the country). Milawarra yarrangi muwayi (See our country).”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 13, 2015 as "Underground history".

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Karen Halabi
is the editor of The Luxe Traveller.

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