An ancient songline runs from the tip of the Dampier Peninsula into the deserts south of Broome, and the Lurujarri Heritage Trail follows a 90km section between Minyirr (the southern end of Broome's Cable Beach) and Minarriny (Coulomb Point). Paddy Roe (OAM), a young Nyikina man, was entrusted with custodianship of this Country by the passing Jabirr Jabirr elders, who had it passed onto them from the earlier Ngumbarl and Djugun people.
The Trail, both Paddy Roe’s vision and legacy, was developed in 1987 as a means for his Goolarabooloo community to reconnect with Country and as a way of fostering respect for Country, and friendship with non-indigenous people. Today Roe's descendants guide the walk (goolarabooloo.org.au) which is spread over nine days.
Once there was only one trip during Barrgana (Dry) season as the logistics of making camp and catering for around 60 people are challenging. However, with recent environmental threats to Walmadan (James Price Point – named after the Jabirr Jabirr warrior and lying right in the middle of the songline) there’s a greater urgency to welcome to Country as many people as possible before the songline is irretrievably broken, meaning multiple trips are now scheduled each Dry.
Imagine being cocooned in a sleeping bag high on a sand dune with the Indian Ocean lapping gently somewhere below, watching the stars burning brightly above, and hearing the sound of clap-sticks signalling breakfast. Pre-dawn wakeups are the norm in a land where movement is dictated by natural laws – sun and tide. By the time walkers stagger down to the kitchen area behind the dunes, there's already a large boiling pot of billy tea on one of the cooking fires.
There's a powerful feeling walking in a large group even if it stretches out over several kilometres. On the first evening, tourists watching the sunset from Cable Beach wrested their attention from their drinks and looked up in surprise as we wandered past en masse, intent on making the campsite at Ngunungurrukun (Coconut Wells).
Stimulating conversation is never lacking with a group like this; everyone has an interesting story. Fellow walkers might be students, a German family with young kids, a retired lawyer from Sydney, or the parents of one of the camp volunteers.
Days pass easily as you fall into a circadian rhythm of pre-dawn wakeups, beach walking at low tides and 'story stops'. The current elders only recently handed over story-telling roles to the next generation, and the younger mob take the responsibility seriously. After a few nervous pauses, false starts and the odd helpful aside, the stories congeal, take shape, and begin to radiate the teller's pride. Each ochre dig, ancient campsite, meeting ground or landmark is a line in a verse of the song and you're feeling extremely privileged that it's being shared with you.
Flat, easy walking traverses beach, rocks and dunes, though it is mostly shadeless. Luggage is transported inland by truck, so you need only carry water, sunscreen, hat and camera. The shade of a large tree, or perhaps a paperbark swamp, makes for a pleasant lunch, until the afternoon's stroll and lowering sun brings another beautiful campsite.
Once at camp, travelers can erect their shelter or roll out a swag on a nice dune, then wash the day's sweat away in the turquoise sea, before watching the sun sink languidly into the Indian Ocean. Dinner is communal, with plentiful and wholesome meals and catering for finicky eaters.
Afterwards, grab a mug of billy tea and find a place by the fire. Someone will probably pull out a ukulele, or try to explain orbital mechanics with two pieces of fruit and a mussel shell before the group slinks wearily into sleeping bags, searching for shooting stars.
Not every day is spent walking. Two nights are spent in several camps to allow time for cultural activities such as spear, jewellery and boomerang making, fishing, crab-hunting and bush tucker collection. Most activities are laid-back and unstructured.
At Nuwirrar (Barred Creek), with its handy supply of appropriate timber, the morning's spear-making class morphs into an afternoon crab hunt which in turn leads to an evening chilli mud crab cookery lesson.
Murdudun (near Quandong Pt), dominated by a large Gubinge tree, is rich in bush tucker and dinosaur footprints pepper the nearby rocks while whales constantly breach just off shore.
At Yellow River, a day trip leads up a freshwater creek looking for yams and bush honey. If all that's too energetic, just laze around camp and enjoy endless cups of billy tea.
All too soon, it's almost over as you settle into your sleeping bag after the final night's corroboree (a ritual ceremony), scratching your sandfly bites, and reflecting on the amazing things you've seen - the incredible flocks of cockatoos, brolgas and pelicans, solitary sea eagles, jabiru, sea turtles and endless whales.
All the experiences, the stories, the people, the sun setting on the blood-red cliffs of James Price Point or burning its way towards Madagascar at night; the smells, the smoke, the salt, the scalding, bitter tea. You don't realise it yet, but you've changed.
You've been welcomed to Country. And now Country knows you.