Bundy’s ageing but upright body moves swift as a pen across the smooth sand, his feet marking his presence on the landscape as an author does on a page. The tide is out as we wade into the mangroves fringing the shore, searching their tangled roots for a glimpse of a claw. He’s dressed in a salt-stained shirt and shorts, but still forages for mud crabs the old way — with a wattle-tree spear. He bends low and listens. Then, quick as a heron, he jabs into the darkness and withdraws the branch with a snapping crustacean attached to the tip. He rustles up a twiglet fire and flings on the crab. “The land tells us our dreaming [lineage], tells us where we belong,” he says. “I am a gamalede [custodian], so I look after our stories.”
We stand side by side in silence on Cape Leveque — part of Western Australia’s Dampier Peninsula, a crab claw-shaped region pinching the Indian Ocean in the Kimberley — looking out at this ancient land where the sea is the same colour as the sky and not a single building protrudes above the treeline. This is a place where stories aren’t flat creations confined to ink on paper, but rather a time-travelling life force linking past and present held by trees, rocks, animals and Aboriginal people who believe the world was created in the Dreamtime by snake, emu, eagle and kangaroo spirits. “
Of course, I’m still practising and learning my language and customs,” Bundy adds. It’s a record-scratch moment. How can he still be learning, I wonder?
He and many others are having to relearn because from 1905 to 1970, Australian government agencies and church missions forcibly removed as many as one in three Aboriginal children from their families and communities as part of what they called a ‘civilisation’ programme, severing them from their culture. “They moved us away from our stories and the land and it left an empty space,” says Bundy, drawing shapes in the sand with his spear.
Those impacted became known as the Stolen Generation, but many of them, like Bundy, are now reclaiming their heritage.
The Aboriginal Land Rights Act, which first took effect in the Northern Territory in 1976, has allowed First Nations Australians across the country to take back traditional ownership of their lands, and the Cape Leveque peninsula and its three main villages — Djarindjin (where Bundy hails from), Lombadina and One Arm Point — have had their native title land rights restored. Western Australia was also the first state to embrace widespread dual use of English and Indigenous Australian place names — for example Perth is also known as Boorloo — and is now encouraging more Aboriginal people to work in the tourism industry. The only road to remote Cape Leveque has finally been sealed, granting year-round access. Bundy leads me towards a nearby plain of rocks. “Look,” he says, pointing to the ground. Pressed into the stone, beside our feet, is a trail of lithified footprints. “They are 7,000 years old,” he says, showing that his ancestors crabbed and fished here, just as he still does. But it’s also a clear message: Aboriginal people have a foot in both the present and the past — one governed by clocks, calendars and consumerism, the other by sunrise, seasons and stories.
Many are guilty of romanticising, and even mythologising, Aboriginal cultures, and opportunities to learn about them have often felt contrived or, at worst, exploitative. But a new venture is helping to change that, supported by the WA government. Camping with Custodians is a collection of campsites on Aboriginal lands across the Pilbara and Kimberley that are owned and operated by the community. It injects money into the villages and also provides a chance for residents to work locally (instead of being forced to migrate to towns) by showcasing their customs and knowledge to travellers in meaningful ways through a series of day tours, such as the one Bundy is offering, so as to create true dialogue and understanding.
Djarindjin is home to one of six Camping with Custodians campsites spread across the region. Here, just over 1,500 people reside in an area more than three times the size of London. It’s a paprika-hued landscape where flies make honey, seasons number six (not four) and history is written not on pages, but on pearl shells.
The gateway to the Dampier Peninsula is Broome, and it’s here I meet Aboriginal guide Neville Poelino for a tour of the town. “You don’t hear the black history of this place unless you walk with a blackfella,” he says, flashing a boomerang smile from beneath his woven straw hat. “This was my stomping ground,” he adds, an open arm sweeping towards the district known as Chinatown.
Today, this laid-back town of one-storey buildings is awash with coffee shops and jewellery stores and beloved for its uncrowded beaches and perennially sunny skies, but until the 1930s it was a scruffy, boisterous den of industry, built on buttons. “Back then everyone was chasing mother-of-pearl shells, not pearls — those would be thrown back in the water. I’d collect them and use them to catapult birds to eat. Now they sell for thousands of dollars,” says Neville, leading me past the tin-roofed Sun Pictures — the world’s oldest outdoor cinema — and the 1890 Roebuck Hotel, where locals perch on metal chairs out front, pint in hand.
“Us blackfellas needed a permit to enter a pub, and you only got one if ‘civilised’ white folk vouched for you — and even then, you still wouldn’t be served. But that’s yesterday — let’s move forward.”
We walk to the eastern outskirts of town, where a pier of fresh planks juts out into the mangroves. To the right of it sags the splintered original. “This is Streeter’s Jetty — our shells went everywhere from here. I remember one guy even sent a shell to Switzerland with a message written on it: ‘Wanted: house cleaner and possibly a wife.’”
At first, the shells were harvested by Aboriginal divers, but as demand grew, indentured workers from Japan, Malaysia, China and other Asian countries were boated in to keep supplying 80 per cent of the world’s nacre. “The Malay camp was just to the right of Streeter’s, here. I remember the first time they gave me some coriander to taste — it was so strong I thought someone had put a stink beetle in my food.”
After the pearl industry collapsed in the 1950s, many of the divers stayed on and had families with Aboriginal women. “We have all colours in our blood,” grins Neville. It’s a reminder that there is no single Aboriginal culture.
The road to Djarindjin
It was time to journey deeper into the Dampier and toward Djarindjin. Before leaving Broome, I rent a white Toyota Hilux camper nicknamed ‘Tim,’ but with monster tyres, two rooftop tents and a kangaroo bar large enough to take on a rhino.
I nose 130 miles northwards on the newly sealed Cape Leveque Road. In fact, it’s the
only road: a single trail that arrows through a flat expanse of red baked earth studded with towering termite mounds, man-high flaxen scrub grass and trees gnarled and wrinkled by heat. A mercurial shimmer hangs on the horizon and soon my phone signal shrinks to SOS calls only. Road signs warn ‘No Looning’ — to remind drivers that if you crash, help is a long way off.
The only hint of human touch is swerving tyre tracks on the road, but in the hazy heat I can’t be sure if they’re not the slither marks of Alingun, the Dreamtime rainbow serpent himself.
On my first approach, I accidentally drive right past Djarindjin, its roadhouse a momentary blip on the Roadrunner-esque highway. I swing around and pull up beside the two-pump station. Campsite manager Luke Sariago, with a raft of raven hair, emerges from a shipping container-turned-office, waves me through the gate and directs me to my numbered plot on the fenced swathe of red dirt.
Nearby stand a pair of pristine wash blocks, a kitchen and a laundry room. It’s simple and in keeping with the pared-back landscape.
The community financed the campsite with money earned from a helipad they built as a refuelling stop for flying doctors.
Sunset is dialling down the blazing sun and the cicadas are starting to sing, so I pop the roof tent and follow a trail of ants towards the central fire pit. Three nights a week two Djarindjin elders, Trevor Sampi and Audrey Chadforth, gather here to tell guests stories. My fellow campers — a mix of Australians and Germans — draw closer as Trevor slides a wooden boomerang through his hands and starts to speak. “Today we only use boomerangs for song and dance, but they were for fighting and hunting too,” he begins, the campfire flames flickering in the reflection of his glasses.
“When I was younger, men would have five or 10 of these and stand 50 metres apart and dare each other to come closer. They’d throw them so hard sparks would fly off the floor!”
He rises from the rock he’s sitting on and falls to one knee in the dirt, enacting the fight. “The last one I saw still haunts me: three guys against my uncle,” we lean forward.
“He, he…” we crane closer, but some winged thing shrieks from the darkness and he trails off, leaving us aching with anticipation.
I venture a question to the faces of the other guests glowing around the fire: “Why stay here?” After some hesitation, a couple from Perth snap the silence. “We wanted to learn,” they explain. “Before we didn’t have the infrastructure; there were no tours to teach us.” After a pause, another voice: “I’m nearly 40, and we learned nothing of Aboriginal culture in school, but my son has been learning since kindergarten and I want to learn with him”.
Afterwards, I’m guided back to my camper by the glow of gum trees up-lit by van lights, the shadows of bats shooting across the sparkling arc of the Milky Way.
Next to Djarindjin’s traditional community of 300 is the hamlet of Lombadina, home to only 40, but due to join Camping with Custodians next year. The next morning, already scorching, I clamber into the 4X4 of grey-eyed Bud Sibosado, whose family have been the main guardians of the village since the 1980s.
He grew up here but left for school in Broome and worked for seven years in Perth. “There was a lot of racism and ignorance in the city, so four years ago I came home,” he says.
Like Bundy, he leads mud-crabbing tours and the money allows him to earn a living in his hometown — but their histories are different.
“My great grandmother was Bardi, but my great grandfather was a Japanese orphan who was picked up by the Catholic mission. Because he grew up in the ‘regime’, he stopped us from attending ceremonies and speaking the language at home,” he says, manoeuvring his minibus down a narrow sandy track, towards his favourite crabbing creek.
“I remember when I was a kid, maybe 12 years old, an elder came and asked my dad if I was ready to come with them. Dad said, ‘next year,’ but it never happened. Now it’s too late for me to learn about Dreamtime because I wasn’t initiated. I feel frustrated I missed it because now I belong to both bloodlines and I belong to neither — it spurs you on to change things for your children, before the knowledge gets lost.” We sit in comfortable silence until we reach the creek, where soldier crabs roll marbles of sand and barnacles cling to the mangrove roots.
Men’s and women’s business
For Rosanna Angus, her wiry ebony hair scraped back into a thick plait, the effects of enforced religion are different. The only female tour guide on the Dampier Peninsula, she leads boat outings to Ewuny (Sunday Island), where a United Church mission was stationed until 1962, just before she was born, and where she lived until 1974, before moving to One Arm Point on the mainland.
“I was eight years old the first time I lived in a house,” she says quickly as we board the boat. “We ate turtles, dugong, stingray and fish — there’s still lots of stone traps around coast.” She points to the shallows, where, she explains, rings of rocks trap fish as the tides rise and retreat.
We bounce out of Cygnet Bay into the gaping gulf of King Sound, where whirlpools and waterfalls emerge mid-ocean — a local phenomenon. “Every day, 116 Sydney Harbour’s-worth of water pushes through the Sound in six hours,” shouts Rosanna, above the spray curling over the bow into our faces.
When we’re nearing Ewuny, a nesting osprey eyes us from its castle of branches and the shadow of a turtle coasts through the azure shallows. We ground the boat ashore a deserted beach and Rosanna strides ahead of us, shouting in Jawi into the cove and surrounding rust-red cliffs. Then she pauses and listens. Nods. And turns back towards us.
“When we bring someone new to our land, we do a welcome ceremony. We shout out to our grandfathers and say ‘hey, I’m bringing these people to you, they’ve come from far and wide and bring good liyan [spirit], rest easy’. But, you know, it took me two years to learn how to offer a welcome in my own language.”
She spreads a blanket on the crystalline sand, pours out tea and hands us hunks of damper bread smeared with jam. “Many aspects of our culture are ‘men’s business’ only. They have ownership of, or the right to speak about, all the traditional stuff like spears, boomerangs and stories. Those stories can’t be told by women. But history is free to discuss, so I chose that. Few women do the talking, and I want to empower other women, so they too can earn a living from tourism.”
On the last day, I meet up with Rosanna’s cousin, Bolo Angus, at the mouth of King Sound — the final yawn of the Fitzroy River before it mingles with the Indian Ocean. A chorus of croaks and whistles is coming from inside the mangrove-fringed coastal flats and the skin-singeing sun beats down on our heads. Bolo is barefoot and wearing a baseball cap, broad black sunglasses and a crisp, red polo shirt. “Let’s go to where my grandfather walked,” he says, his sure-footed strides being shadowed by Nijjee, a golden purebred dingo he’d rescued from the mangroves as a pup. Bolo still bears the bush name of his grandfather: ‘Jumbadij.’
“I grew up the old way. I did with my grandparents what they did with theirs because my grandparents lived in the bush to escape the Catholic mission,” he explains, feet squelching into the silty sand.
“Four generations before me, they were walking naked with their riji.” I tilt my head, questioningly. “It symbolises the rite of passage to manhood,” he says, indicating a teardrop-shaped shell he’s carrying engraved with ochre-stained symbols. “We don’t have rock at Dampier; pearl is our canvas.”
I follow him deeper into the mangroves. “The bush is still our chemist and supermarket,” he says. He holds his ear to the knot of a twisted tree, its bark flaking off like old skin. He raps it gently and tiny flies emerge, as if responding to a knock at their front door. “They make honey,” he smiles. “Flies?” I ask. He nods, before darting over to a bush and stripping a few pods from its arms. “Wattle seeds — when they’re green you can foam them up,” he demonstrates by dipping his hands into the creek and vigorously rubbing seed and water together until a white mousse spills from between his fingers. “It gets rid of sweat rashes.” Then he looks to the sky. “Black cockatoos eat seeds that are toxic to people and always head for freshwater to wash them out, so you can follow them if you’re thirsty.” He’s clearly in his element.
“Tourism works well for us because our natural role is to pass down knowledge. Sharing stories keeps them alive,” he says. I ask whether he’s always managed to have a foot in both worlds — present and past. “In the city, I’ll walk past a white lady and she’ll grip her purse. Out here, when I run tours, they offer me drinks. Tours reduce the divide,” he says, soberly. “I’m not angry. The past is the past, but the younger generations are lost because they don’t know who they are now.”
Camping with Custodians and initiatives like it may go some way to help rectify this. Bolo explains how his teenage daughter, Malati, helps him prepare for tours and listens as he tells stories. She will be part of the next generation of gameledes and offers hope that her father’s fears may not come to pass. “Whenever I’m away and start to feel lost, I always come back to this place to ground me,” she tells me when she joins us, just before I leave. “I’m lucky to have a traditional family,” she adds. “Not everyone does.”
Qantas flies direct from Heathrow to Perth. Emirates, Qatar and British Airways all offer indirect flights, with stopovers in the UAE.
Average flight time: 17h.
Qantas and Virgin Australia operate a Perth to Broome flight four times daily.
Average flight time: 2h 40min.
When to go to Western Australia
Prime time to visit the Dampier is the dry season (May–October), when the mercury is a manageable 27–28C. During the wet season (November–April), the Cape Leveque Road may experience closures, weather is muggy and temperatures hover 35C-plus.
Where to stay in Western Australia
Djarindjin Campground. Pitches from £15.
Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm. Pitches from £25.
The Continental. From £100, room only.
More information about visiting Western Australia
When entering Aboriginal communities, you must declare your arrival and you may need a permit. Most charge entry. Every community has different rules, so always check ahead with the local office.
How to plan a trip to Western Australia
Travelbag offers 13 nights’ room only from £3,189 per person, based on two sharing, including four nights at the Pan Pacific in Perth, one at Seashells in Broome and eight in a 4x4 Safari Landcruiser with rooftop tent, plus flights with Qantas and Virgin Australia, and car hire.