Culture shared on the Lurujarri Heritage Trail

By Dallas Hewett 28 May 2014
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Walk alongside the Goolarabooloo community on a journey that traces their 82km songline north of Broome, WA.

THE HUGE GOANNA lies motionless but for its flickering forked tongue. Goolarabooloo lawman Richard Hunter delivers a single blow to the back of its head and the tongue is stilled. “He’s fat one, eh? Good eating tonight. Country happy.”

It is the final day of our journey on the Lurujarri Heritage Trail, the 25th anniversary of this remarkable cross-cultural experience. Gently guided by families of the Goolarabooloo community of northern Broome, we have followed the Lurujarri – meaning ‘coastal dunes’ – songline from just outside Broome (Rubibi) to Yellow River (Bindingankun), along 82km of remote Kimberley wilderness.

Anyone can join this annual walk for a fee that covers basic provisions, but there is no itinerary or track notes. This is a loose, authentic, contemporary Aboriginal experience.

At the beginning of the walk – which I join in June 2012 with about 70 others – we gather and nervous, excited banter fills the hot air. Information on what to expect is sketchy. I sense the layers of expectation I’m accustomed to are being peeled away.

“I’m gonna tell you a story,” says Richard on that first day, barely audible above the group chatter. Silence ensues. “Actually, I’m gonna tell you many stories, all along this songline, stories from Bugarregarre – creation time.” With no front teeth, a white beard, and deep lines that draw you into his eyes, Richard gestures with long lean arms and bent fingers towards the coast. “The spirits they come from the sea.”

Richard’s storytelling is punctuated by long pauses and cheeky chuckles. Frequently he glances around the horizon before reaching in front of his crossed legs to draw a line or a circle in the sand, before rubbing it out and continuing. Birdsong fills the air, a soft breeze ruffles the trees, a lizard
darts across the sand.

“First sound: a clap. Before this: no sound.” Richard claps his hands. “You hear that first sound. Still today we clap, we clap sticks, we sing.”

Richard is the main storyteller of the Goolarabooloo. “This is my job, I tell the stories, our law in these stories,” he says, flashing his infectious grin. “‘Keep these stories alive,’ the old man say – but you gotta learn to listen, really listen.”

History of the Lurujarri Trail

The “old man” he refers to is actually his grandfather, the late Paddy Roe. Paddy, a station manager, had been handed the law of the land in traditional ceremony, and established the Goolarabooloo community north of Broome in an effort to maintain a cultural connection to country for his family.

With a dream to share his ancient culture with outsiders – whitefellas – Paddy first invited people to join his family on the Lurujarri Trail in 1987. Three years later he was awarded an Order of Australia Medal for this facilitation of cross-cultural understanding.

“Paddy understood the power of country to foster better understanding… This trail is his dream,” says Frans Hoogland, an initiated Goolarabooloo man who was born in the Netherlands. Bow-legged and lean, Frans is a middleman between the family and white culture. “I came along ’empty vessel’ the old man said. I been here since. He taught me. He saw me as a link, I guess…We believe this path was taken by ancestral spirits, every piece of the landscape evolved through this song of creation. It’s all connected.”

The nine days on the trail comprise of long walks littered with spontaneous discoveries. Small groups frequently break off to search out bush
honey and berries, or to cut wood for carving or learn about bush medicine.

At one point Richard gestures to me as he darts into the scrub. “This one, irrigil tree,” he says, pointing to a tall tree. “Remember I tell you about the
first sound, creation time – the clap? Our people we clap with boomerang – this tree, good sound. We call the tree, and the boomerang, irrigil. This all along the songline.”

“Oh come look: three irrigil and a banderago – medicine tree – all in one place,” he says, flashing his toothless grin. “And a fruit tree. We have free supermarket all around, eh.”

Legacy of the Aboriginal people on the Lurujarri

On the first day – a typically clear June Broome day – I meet Paddy Roe’s daughter Teresa Roe in her humble home, which was once the ‘native hospital’.

Teresa, and her late sister Margaret, were born near where she lives today. “We spirit girls – born Jabirr Jabirr country. My mum and dad came from two different country: mum Karajarri and dad Nyikina land. They went to that country and they found only old people. No young people left – they gone to town, or take to missions.”

Paddy then set up the Goolarabooroo community. “Dad used to tell us about the old people. [They] pass on law. They teach him,” she says. Paddy was keen to share the culture and soon started the Lurujarri walks.

Framed photos of his extensive family clutter every table space. “This one – he do bad thing,” Teresa says, picking up a dusty frame. “He kill himself.”

The Goolarabooloo don’t shy away from the daily struggles of being Aboriginal in modern Australia – the alcohol abuse, violence, depression, suicide, poverty and the fight for land. But they draw hope from Paddy’s legacy. And for these nine days each year, the mob comes together to reconnect and honour the “old man”.

Lurujarri rhythms

Changes are subtle along the way. The rhythms of nature serenade us – the rising and setting sun, huge tidal changes, the moon that grows as the nights pass. The days merge, time slows and we are individuals no longer: we are a mob moving across country as one.

Well before sunrise each day, Frans walks around camp tapping a slow rhythm on his ‘gumbag’ or scratchy wattle clap sticks. We pack swags and tents before gathering at the cooking fire for a cup of tea and some fire-warmed porridge.

The 10-15km daily walk starts before sunrise, taking advantage of the cool. The early start also allows time to appreciate the changes in light as the sun rises and the moon descends to a cacophony of birdsong. We pass hermit crabs that leave tiny patterns on the sand, and are stung as we mistakenly sit on grass filled with prickles. We stroll through pockets of purple flowers with faint blue tips and windswept yellow wattle.

On long beaches, children inspect seashells, listening with ears pressed against them as their eyes widen. We snack on oysters jemmied off the rocks. Across wide grasslands we follow the lead of Richard, Frans or other Goolarabooloo, who stride for hours at a time under an unforgiving sun without need for water bottles, trail snacks or hats. Plotting a course without consultation, they walk with purpose and poise.

With my hands encrusted with red dirt, I feel like part of the surrounding earth. I ask Frans what he sees as he looks ahead. “Not looking, but reading, feeling…you got to feel it,” he says. “It’s as if a life force extends from your core, your middle, and it leads you to where you need to go. You become
one with the land; you understand how it’s all connected, everything…but you gotta be aware of it, you gotta listen.” Then he says, laughing: “C’mon, keep walking. Too much talking. Walking better.”

Aboriginal songlines on the trail

At Nuwirrar, or Barred Creek, on our third day, a group of young boys heads towards the mangroves with an assortment of spears over their shoulders.

“We going to get some mud crabs, eh,” says Terrence, a tall, athletic, younger member of the Hunter family. His father, also Terrence, a well-respected bushman, hopes that someday his son will become a leader in the mob. “He’s a good boy,” he says. “Wants to learn. Happy to come on country. Less drinking and trouble for him these days, now he bring his small boy as well.”

That afternoon we are knee deep in mud, poking steel-tipped spears into holes under a vast maze of mangrove tree roots exposed by low tide. Terrence listens, feeling for the scrape of metal on shell, then unleashes sharp, piercing jabs to remove the creature from its dark abode.

“They’ve never actually been asked, no-one has even consulted them about how to live in this place,” says Jeanne Browne, a Melbourne artist who helped Paddy document plants along the route. She explains the six seasons that dictates life along the songline: “the paperbark flowers when the jinnup or stingray gets fat, same time as the march fly eyes turn green”.

At Walmadan, or James Price Point, our camp among the dunes provides views across the ocean and we spot whales on their own ancient journey north. Two drilling platforms sit a kilometre offshore.

The Western Australian government plans to allow an enormous gas-processing hub to be built here, in the middle of the songline. In a protracted, divisive and bitter legal dispute, the corporations and state government are pitched against the Goolarabooloo, who themselves are in legal dispute with other Aboriginal parties, making for a complicated affair.

“It’s pretty simple for us really,” says Philip Roe, a law-man and Paddy’s grandson. “We do everything we can to stop this development, because this land holds our law, our culture, no amount of money can replace that. Break this songline and it’s gone, mate. It’s like a snake – you cut him in ‘alf, ‘e don’t live… Same for songline – you cut it, it dies.”

The group is led through vast, ancient middens. Hundreds of perfectly formed tools – spearheads, even a grinding stone – are found. In the late afternoon we climb down glowing red pindan cliffs onto wide rock platforms. Richard strolls purposefully across a rock ledge in his large black boots, as his flannelette shirt flaps around his waist. “Hey, got one,” he calls. He moves on: “Look, another, and another.” Stretching ahead is a clearly visible dinosaur trackway.

“Creation beings. I told you about Marella – the emu man story. I point him out in the night sky – This where Marella came down. This is his journey.”

Dr Steven Salisbury, a palaeontologist at the University of Queensland, has been working with the Goolarabooloo documenting and identifying the tracks. “These trackways are of international significance; the glimpse of a 130-million-year-old world that they provide is awe inspiring,” he says. “But it is the linking of these track sites into the songline and associated indigenous culture that adds a whole other dimension to their significance.”

A “deep learning experience” on the trail

In the early eve of our final day, the sun begins a long, spectacular setting. Richard directs me to dip a piece of fire-cooked damper into the fatty tissue of a grilled goanna. “That’s the good stuff, the fat.” Terrence Senior, who had tracked the goanna, grins across the fire. “Good one this one – real fatty.”

Now in tune with the goings-on of camp, people wander about, reflecting on the trip. Food is prepared and shared, while cups of tea warm hands as evening approaches. People are carving, playing music – sharing experiences. The camp buzzes with birdsong and children’s laughter.

Bronwyn Buksh, a lecturer at the University of the Sunshine Coast, in Sippy Downs, Queensland, walked the trail with both of her young boys. “[It is] truly a deep learning-experience,” she says. “I feel as if I am under the spell of country. I actually feel happier, even more content for this experience.”

Richard reminisces about Paddy around the small fire. “When I was sitting in hospital waiting for him to move on, he told me he would be watching from the spirit world.

He left me behind [saying]: ‘firstly, look after family through country; and secondly, share country.’ Doesn’t matter where you come from, you come and experience our country with us. Good for everyone. That’s what Paddy wanted.”