By Fergus Blakiston
“And Wilderness is Paradise enow…” – Omar Khayyam
I thought I would die on the Dampier Peninsula. It wasn’t just the saltwater crocodiles lurking in the mangrove creeks. It wasn’t the black tip sharks patrolling the waters of King Sound. I could keep a wary eye on the 30-foot tides, which raced in twice each day, swallowing the rocky beaches along the coastline in minutes. The ferocious mosquitoes, the ants and sand flies were merely an annoyance. What affected me most out here was the isolation — the feeling of being at the uttermost end of the earth — and the realization of how vulnerable, emotionally and physically, humans can be when confronted with a true wilderness.
The 150-mile long Dampier Peninsula juts seaward from the northern tip of Western Australia. To the south-east, beyond the deep indentation of King Sound, lies the equally rugged Kimberley region: a wilderness of wind-sculpted landforms, hidden rivers and forests lost in deep gorges.
The Dampier Peninsula is pirate country. For hundreds of years before Europeans settled Australia, Portuguese, Dutch, Macassan and Chinese buccaneers frequented the coast of King Sound, laying low to evade pursuers and perhaps burying ill-gotten booty. Many of the sound’s landmarks — One-Arm Point, Disaster Bay — have names with an unmistakably piratical ring. The peninsula is named after William Dampier, an English privateer turned explorer who first mapped the western coast of Australia.
Around thirty percent of the peninsula’s 8000 square miles of land is owned by Aboriginals, whose ancestors have lived here for thousands of years, and their permission is required to visit many of the isolated missions and outstations. Yet for travelers willing to forgo the sybaritic resorts of Broome – the northernmost town on the coast of Western Australia – for a few days in the bush, the peninsula offers a perfect opportunity to interact with and learn from Aboriginal people.
Mark Manado’s family runs Barramundi Moon bush camp, east of the Beagle Bay Mission on the coast of King Sound. The evocative name comes from a song Mark wrote about fishing for barramundi at night. Although the name sounds exotic this was no luxury retreat. The facilities are basic and visitors need to be self-sufficient or, like our group, part of an organized tour to stay there. The attraction of Barramundi Moon is the chance to explore a remote and savagely beautiful part of the Dampier Peninsula in the company of Aboriginals who still maintain strong links with the land.
To reach the peninsula I had flown from my home in New Zealand to Darwin via Sydney, then on to Broome: a total of ten hours in the air. It was like flying from LA to Paris and it seemed as though I had almost reached the end of the world. In Broome I joined four other travellers with a shared interest in Aboriginal culture.
We had all discovered Barramundi Moon by searching the Internet; our driver and guide, Dan Balint’s company, Kimberley Wild, had also been engaged using the Net. There was a pleasing symmetry in using computer technology to arrange a trip into the wilderness to learn about the customs of the world’s oldest continuous civilization.
With Dan’s sturdy Landcruiser four wheel-drive packed with fresh water, food and camping gear, we drove north from Broome along the Cape Leveque Road: a grand name for what was nothing more than a deep groove carved through brick red dirt.
The road (or “track” as the Aussies call an outback road) is impassable during the rainy season (“The Wet”) which lasts from December to April. It’s roughness inspired the title of Aboriginal playwright Stephen Baamba’s play, “Corrugation Road,” about the rigors of life on the peninsula.
Dan attacked the road like a rally driver. “The only way to drive on corrugations is to hit the buggers fast,” he shouted over the juddering rumble of the Landcruiser’s suspension. His face alternated between a mask of concentration as we lurched through patches of bulldust (deep, finely powdered dirt which can easily bog a vehicle) to a broad grin as we became airborne in the back after hitting a particularly big pothole.
As we hammered north through the gnarled eucalypt forest I wondered what lay ahead. The road ran into a vanishing point of red beneath a sky of burnished copper. The thrumming of the wheels on the dirt seemed to be chanting a mantra: “come and find out, come and find out…”
After three hours of bouncing we reached the Beagle Bay Mission, a tiny cluster of houses established in 1890 by French Trappist monks. In the 19th century, Europeans settlers clashed with the Aboriginals and the mission provided a refuge for many Aboriginal families. The simple, single-story mission church, constructed from timber hewn from the surrounding bush and stone quarried from the coast, was completed in 1901, and has an exquisite altar inlaid with mother-of-pearl depictions of biblical scenes and Aboriginal motifs.
As we stood in the reverential silence before the altar, another Landcruiser roared up outside.
“I’ve been looking for you mob,” Mark Manado said as he walked into the church. “It gets dark quickly up here and it’s easy to get lost.”
Tall and gangly in a New York City t-shirt, shorts and bare feet, Mark’s Portuguese ancestry had sharpened his Aboriginal features, giving him an aquiline nose and high cheekbones beneath jet black skin. His cousin, Stephen Victor, a grizzled elder of their Nimunburu tribe, grinned at us from beneath a battered Akubra hat.
The late afternoon sun slanted through giant fig trees growing on the mission grounds. Sulphur-crested cockatoos screeched overhead. Some of the mission kids played a boisterous game of Aussie Rules football on a dirt pitch. We piled into the vehicles and headed east through a forest of six-foot tall buffalo grass and tall, gaunt stringy-bark trees. The setting sun glowed hazy orange through the miasma of dust thrown up by our wheels. By the time we reached the camp darkness had fallen.
Mark lit a fire and each of us was assigned a roomy shelter in which to sleep. The shelters consisted of a corrugated iron roof over a concrete floor, with shade-cloth providing the walls. Each shelter contained four camp stretchers. Preferring to sleep outside in the cool the May air, I suspended my mosquito net from a tree I and slept on a stretcher beneath the star-encrusted southern sky.
Life at Barramundi Moon revolves around the tides and the eternal cycle of day and night. At low tide next morning we set off along the beach with Mark and four members of his family. As the day’s heat grew, we walked north beneath towering cliffs of rainbow-hued sandstone. These are the true colors of Australia: alternating bands of ochre red and pale yellow capped with a green skin of vegetation along the cliff top. Chunks of rock the size of buildings had fallen onto the beach, and the relentless ocean was patiently scraping their edges back into sand.
I clambered into a narrow cleft where a colony of common sheath-tailed bats had made their home. “They taste great roasted,” Mark called from outside as the bats flitted and dived around me, their shrill squeaks echoing from the walls.
Farther along the beach, Mark showed us a wide semicircle of stones, which once formed a fish trap, strategically placed to collect fish as the tide receded along a sandy channel. It was being taken over by mangroves, because it was no longer used. But as we stood inside the circle talking, Mark’s 5-year-old nephew, Vaun, speared a crab for lunch.
When we stopped for a rest in the shade of a massive lump of sandstone I asked Mark about the evocative name of his camp.
“A mob of us were going out fishing one night,” he said. “We were driving down a bush track when we saw the full moon rising ahead of us. I said to my son, ‘I can feel the barramundi in my fingers looking at that moon,’ and so we made up a song about it called ‘The Barramundi Moon.’ ”
We climbed a jutting headland and descended into the eucalypt forest for a lesson in gathering the natural fruits, berries, roots and vegetables Aussies call “Bush Tucker.”
“To us the bush is a giant open air supermarket, stuffed full of edible plants,” Mark said, plucking a handful of tiny translucent berries from a scrubby bush. (The berries tasted of tinned pears.)
“Bush tucker is high in carbohydrates and vitamins,” he continued. “You could survive out here for ages just by eating berries like these.”
But far from being a convenient larder, the bush is also a hardware store full of useful tools and a pharmacy in which Aboriginals can find cures for any ailment or injury. Mark knelt and dug a root from beneath another stunted bush.
“This is a Banjurra root,” he said. “If you crush it up and drop it in a rock pool it suffocates all the fish in the water. They float up to the surface and you can grab them.”
By now it was midday. The sun was incandescent on the ocean and beat down on us with an almost tactile force. The landscape span and wobbled in the heat as if we were looking at it through a glass bottle.
“In heat like this you need to conserve your energy,” Mark told us. “Aboriginal people do most of their food-gathering and traveling in the early morning and in the evening. In the heat of the day we just rest up.”
As he spoke he plucked some leaves from an acacia tree and stuffed them into his pocket. Back at camp an hour later we boiled the leaves in a billy-can of water to make a refreshing herbal tea that tasted like peppermint.
That evening we walked out onto a reef exposed by the receding tide to watch the sunset. Wave-worn rocks enclosed pools where aquamarine crabs watched us with glittering eyes and long, black sea cucumbers lay motionless amid crimson and sapphire corals. As the sun sank into the land the air seemed to shimmer and in the moment between day’s end and night’s arrival, the sky and the sea fused into a seamless mirror of pink and mauve light.
Tide-oriented places like Barramundi Moon always seem to encourage a degree of soul-searching and I found the Dampier Peninsula particularly conducive to introspection. In new surroundings, freed from the routines of home, every emotion and response becomes intense. At Barramundi Moon, I no longer felt the everyday constraints on my thinking. I could change a little about myself and try something new in the safety of anonymity.
A few hours in jet aircraft and four-wheel-drives can shift us from the safety of familiar surroundings into an utterly alien place. I realized how being in a strange landscape can also bring people together. Stripped bare of luxuries our small group had formed a strong bond of friendship out there.
Despite the fact that the six of us came from several different countries (three Aussies, a Kiwi, a Canadian and a Swede), during our three-day stay on the peninsula we learnt to rely on each other’s strengths, just as our Aboriginal hosts rely on the communal strength of their tribe to survive. We caught and cooked fish and crabs to eat, tended the campfire and took turns looking out for crocs whenever we swam in the warm waters of the Sound.
On our last morning at Barramundi Moon we clambered over a headland south of the camp to explore a cave. The coastline here was forbidding and primeval. Giant salamanders slithered on the tidal mud. A forest of inscrutable mangroves choked a brackish creek beneath cliffs of red and purple stone. The incoming tide roared on the overfalls and embankments of the reef with a noise like a distant cheering crowd.
The floor of the cavern was strewn with colored pebbles and crushed shells that crunched beneath our feet. At the back of the cave the numbers 1417 were etched into the damp rock of the ceiling. I ran my hands over the numerals and wondered about their meaning. Was it a date? Was it a set of coded directions to buried treasure? Was it the last message of a castaway, dying alone on this burning shore? Outside the cave, the ocean glittered in the sunlight, like a new frontier where anything was possible. I put my arm around one of my new friends and thought: “Out here you can make up your own ending.”