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A walkabout with Aborigines

Special to The Times

Barramundi Moon, Australia

I thought I might die in Dampier Land. 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 mere annoyances.

What affected me most out here in one of Australia's least-explored regions was the isolation — the feeling of being at the end of 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 east, beyond the deep indentation of King Sound, lies the rugged Kimberley region of wind-sculpted landforms, hidden rivers and forests lost in deep gorges.

The Dampier Peninsula was pirate country. For hundreds of years before Europeans settled Australia, Portuguese, Dutch and Chinese buccaneers frequented the coast of King Sound, lying 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. In fact, the peninsula is named after William Dampier, the English privateer turned explorer who first mapped the western coast of Australia in the 17th century.

Around a third of the peninsula's 8,000 square miles is owned by Aborigines, 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 city on the coast of Western Australia, for a few days in the bush, the peninsula offers an opportunity to interact with and learn from Aborigines.

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 Manado wrote about fishing for barramundi at night.

Although the name has an exotic lilt, this was no luxury retreat. The facilities are basic, and visitors need to be self-sufficient or, like our group of five, part of an organized tour to stay here. The attraction of Barramundi Moon is the chance to explore a remote, savagely beautiful part of Dampier Land in the company of Aborigines who maintain strong links with the land.

To get here, I had flown 10 hours from my home in New Zealand through Darwin and Sydney, then on to Broome, where I joined four other travelers. We had all discovered Barramundi Moon on the Internet and had hired our driver and guide, Dan Balint of Kimberley Wild Outback Tours, the same way. There was a pleasing symmetry in using computer technology to arrange a trip into the wilderness to learn about the customs of one of the world's oldest civilizations.

On the corrugated road With Balint's sturdy Land Cruiser four-wheel-drive packed with drinking 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" lasts from December to April.) Its roughness inspired the title of Aboriginal playwright Stephen "Baamba" Albert's play "Corrugation Road," about the rigors of life on the peninsula.

Balint attacked the track like a rally driver. "The only way to drive on corrugations is to hit [them] fast," he shouted over the shuddering rumble of the Land Cruiser's suspension. His face alternated between a mask of concentration as we lurched through patches of bull dust — deep, finely powdered dirt that can easily bog down a vehicle — and a broad grin as we passengers went airborne after hitting a big pothole.

As we hammered north through a gnarled eucalyptus forest, I wondered what lay ahead. The road vanished into a point of red beneath a sky of burnished copper. 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, when European settlers clashed with the Aborigines, the mission provided a refuge for many native families.

The simple, single-story mission church, constructed of timber hewn from the surrounding bush and stone quarried from the coast, was completed in 1918 and has an exquisite altar inlaid with mother-of-pearl depictions of biblical scenes and Aboriginal motifs.

As we stood in reverential silence before the altar, another Land Cruiser roared up outside.

"I've been looking for you mob," Manado said as he walked into the church. "It gets dark quickly up here, and it's easy to get lost."

Manado was tall and gangly in a New York City T-shirt, shorts and bare feet. His 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 hat.

We piled into the vehicles and headed east through a forest of 6-foot-tall buffalo grass and tall, gaunt stringy-bark trees. The setting sun glowed hazy orange through the miasma of dust thrown by our wheels. By the time we reached the camp, darkness had fallen.

Manado lighted a fire and assigned each of us a roomy shelter in which to sleep. They were rustic, a corrugated iron roof over a concrete floor with cloth walls. Each contained four camp cots, but I preferred to sleep outside in the cool May air, so I suspended my mosquito net from a tree and slept beneath the star-encrusted southern sky.

Life at Barramundi Moon is dictated by the tides and the eternal cycle of day and night. At low tide next morning, we set off along the beach with Manado and four members of his family, walking north beneath towering cliffs of rainbow-hued sandstone.

These are the true colors of Australia: alternating bands of ocher 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 scraping their edges into sand.

I clambered into a narrow cleft where a colony of common sheath-tailed bats had made their home.

"They taste great roasted," Manado called from outside as the bats flitted and dived around me, their shrill squeaks echoing from the walls.

Farther along the beach, Manado showed us a wide semicircle of stones, which trapped fish as the tide receded along a sandy channel. It was no longer used and had been overgrown by mangroves. But as we stood inside the trap talking, Manado'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 Manado 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 eucalyptus forest for a lesson in gathering wild fruits, berries, roots and vegetables, which the Aussies call "bush tucker."

"To us the bush is a giant open-air supermarket, stuffed full of edible plants," Manado said, plucking tiny translucent berries from a scrubby bush. (They tasted like canned 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 more than a convenient larder, the bush is also a hardware store of useful tools and a pharmacy, in which Aborigines can find cures for numerous ailments and injuries.

Manado knelt and dug a root from beneath a 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, incandescent on the ocean, beat down on us with a tactile force. The landscape wobbled in the heat.

"In heat like this you need to conserve your energy," Manado 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 in 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 onto a reef exposed by the tide to watch the sunset. Wave-worn rocks enclosed pools where aquamarine crabs watched us with glittering eyes. Long, black sea cucumbers lay motionless amid crimson and sapphire coral. As the sun sank, the air seemed to shimmer, and in the moment between day's end and night's beginning, the sky and sea fused into a seamless mirror of pink and mauve light.

In a strange land Tide-ORIENTED places like Barramundi Moon seem to encourage a degree of soul-searching. I found Barramundi Moon particularly conducive to introspection. In new surroundings, freed from the routines of home, every emotion and response becomes intense. I no longer felt constraints on my thinking. I could change a little about myself and try something new in the safety of anonymity.

A few hours in a jet and four-wheel-drives had shifted us from the safety of familiar surroundings to an utterly alien place, and I realized how being in a strange landscape can bring people together. Stripped bare of luxuries, our small group had formed a bond of friendship.

We came from different countries (two Aussies, a New Zealander, a Canadian and a Swede), but during our three-day stay at Barramundi we learned to rely on one another's strengths, just as our Aborigine hosts relied on the communal strength of their tribe to survive. We caught and cooked fish and crabs to eat and tended the campfire and took turns looking out for crocodiles 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 impenetrable mangroves choked a brackish creek beneath cliffs of red and purple stone. The incoming tide roared over the reef. 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 number 1417 was 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?

I put my arm around one of my new friends and thought, "Out here you can make up your own ending."




Go natural Down Under


From LAX, Qantas has connecting service (change of planes) to Broome, Australia, by way of Melbourne. Restricted round-trip nonstop flights to Melbourne begin at $1,882; restricted round-trip fares from Melbourne to Broome begin at $504.


To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 61 (country code for Australia), 8 (the area code) and the local number.


Best of the Kimberley, P.O. Box 599, Broome, Western Australia 6725; 9192-6070, fax 9192-6071, http://www.kimberleytravel.net . Handles bookings for Barramundi Moon and other aboriginal communities. A self-catered, two-night stay in a bare-bones cabin at Barramundi Moon, including one tour, is $66 per person. Guests must bring camping gear, food and drinks. The camp has showers and bathrooms.

Kimberley Wild Outback Tours, P.O. Box 3434, Broome, Western Australia 6725; 9193-7778, http://www.kimberleywild.com.au . I used this company, which offers tailored camping packages to the Dampier Peninsula.


May and June are the coolest months of the dry season, with temperatures in the 80s during the day to 50s at night.

A wide-brimmed hat, sunblock and insect repellent containing DEET are essential. Lightweight clothes will suffice during the day, but at night a long-sleeved top will keep off the chill. Avoid dark-colored clothes, perfume and after-shave, because these attract mosquitoes.


Australian Tourist Commission, 2049 Century Park East, Suite 1920, Los Angeles, CA 90067; (800) 369-6863, fax (310) 552-1215, http://www.australia.com .

Broome Visitors Centre, P.O. Box 352, Broome, Western Australia 6725; 9192-2222, fax 9192-2063, http://www.ebroome.com/tourism .

— Fergus Blakiston

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