The Lurujarri trail which runs along the Kimberley coast north of Broome is part of an ancient songline of the traditional owners of that part of the country. It passes through James Price Point – a site which carries giant dinosaur footprints and has been for the time being protected from gas drilling. This article is my account of walking the trail.
At the best of times I am living in freedom, aware of but not cramped by my fears. At my worst, my fears control me.
A few mornings after returning from the Lurujarri trail with the Goolarabooloo people on the Kimberley coast, I woke up fresh from a vivid dream.
In the dream I was coursing down a gleaming blue salt water channel in a crude canoe. Having surrendered to the pull of the current, I wasn’t in control of the journey any more. Standing up in the moving boat, I could see undulating sand dunes and green vines stretching from the banks to the blazing blue horizon. Next to the canoe a gigantic creature was playing in the water, its moist skin dazzling in the desert sun – a larger than life dolphin diving nose first into the water and leaping out, again and again, coursing north alongside the canoe.
Not being in control of my course was stoking my fears. But having accepted the current I had also come unhinged. Floating down the waterway, I was experiencing freedom over doubts, a soaring sensation instead of suffocation.
And then, frustratingly similar to my waking life, the free-coursing adventure in my dream was cut short by my controlling nature. In the next scene I saw the canoe banked and myself ashore, talking to resting seafarers. I could still feel exhilaration welling in my stomach, but my mind was made up about not returning to the current.
The Lurujarri trail was born out of Paddy Roe’s vision for country and culture, an idea borne from thinking and story-telling under the Tamarind tree at the Goolarabooloo hostel in Broome. In 1987 he opened up a section of the ancient songline running north from Broome along the coast for all – indigenous and nonindigenous – to walk country and understand culture with him. The heritage trail as we know it today was born.
Lurujarri, which in the Ngumbarl language from Western Kimberley means coastal sand dunes, are a continuous feature of the landscape in this country. Pale yellow and wind swept, they stretch north to south along the coast and wear a mesh of coastal vines, some modestly and some scantily.
On our trail last July, agile and silver haired Frans Hoogland – a Dutchman initiated into Goolarabooloo customs by Paddy Roe – led fifty walkers through country as fresh to our eyes as the djaburr (dew in Ngumbarl) that falls copiously at this time of the year.
Volunteers from all over Australia and family members also walked with us over nine days and eighty two kilometres, from under the legendary Tamarind tree in Broome to Yellow River near the tip of Dampier Peninsula.
As we started that warm afternoon, we were given the word le-an – which in the local language expresses the feeling one gets upon walking country – to carry as a question mark in our minds, to be filled with our experiences of country as the journey unfolded.
Till such time after the trail-walk that I saw this dream, it was not possible to express how the place had affected me. Beyond the fact that I had fully unhinged from my pressure cooker lifestyle, beyond the obvious raw beauty of the Kimberley coast, the heart was not permitting accounts of how walking the songline from Broome to the tip of the Dampier peninsula had affected me to surface.
There was an unreasonable yearning for the sensation of sand grains against my face, for the sound of the wind moving around the dunes at night, for the many campfires piercing the darkness, each trailing its distinct music into the still night beyond, for journeying north within site of the migrating humpbacks, and for my walking companions.
Like a love affair cut short, I was feeling fearful that these flavours would be irretrievably lost, washed away by the tide of city living after returning to Melbourne.
Meanwhile photos from our walk started circulating on email lists, stirring up nostalgia for country, a second wave of awe for its colours– warm red pindan cliffs, gleaming blue ocean, lush green vines on waves of pale yellow dunes; a relapse into wonderment at how we marked our footprints in the sand next to dinosaur tracks millennia old. I settled back into my Melbourne routine with an inscrutable and unspeaking melancholia.
And then came the dream, complex and vivid. The heart’s mysterious silence was finally broken. It made me realise that contact with country had revealed my true spirit, and shown me how I can live. A trusting of out of control, the heady feeling of unrestraint, and the unhinged nature of full immersion – these were the sharpest flavours in my dream and also my experience of the mysterious le-an.
There were several defining experiences from the nine days of walking which conspired to show the true flavours of my life.
Raw richness of Kimberley
Some of the deepest impressions were made by sights and sounds which created the effect travel writer Barry Lopez describes as “bringing home country in distilled doses” in the award-winning book ‘Arctic Dreams’.
At sunset, it felt as though the universe had appeared cloaked in pindan – the red orange sand of the coastal cliffs. The cliffs radiant, their twisted fingers reaching seawards. The Indian Ocean itself transformed in style from its blue glimmer at daytime to an orange smoothness at evening. The sun seeming like a lump of pindan, dripping every second into the sea. To we spectators from a world fragmented by concrete this was a grand display of connectedness. One giant canvas splashed orange.
Standing in the water at such moments, the irresistible urge was to surrender to its tug, to slip away unnoticed and silent like a turtle head retreating.
What else could we do at that hour than prepare to watch the sun go down into the Indian Ocean, followed by the moon rising from the pale dunes and spiky spinifex? Walking with very little, having plenty of time for doing nothing, and having only the country and our musical instruments to play with, watching the sun and moon chase each other climbed to the top of our to-do lists.
Some with cameras, some with ukuleles and guitars, others just sitting on the beach and observing. Whales continuing to move north, in pods or solo, breaching and slapping their tails. Some evenings used to be so still that the sound of a single tail slap at the horizon would come rolling through to shore, and friends miles out across the barred sand looking like specks could be heard as though from across a hallway.
Arriving at Walmadany (James Price Point) on the fifth afternoon, we were greeted by the indigenous flag fluttering high. A few hours later, sitting in silent company on the dunes, we were struck by the trueness of the flag to sunset colours on country – black swallowing the western sky, orange where the sun traced its descent, and a yellow blaze on the rim of the horizon.
We had afforded ourselves the space to see what had become invisible in our bustling lives. We passed sand dunes containing skeletons of those who never made it past camp from back in the days when they lived a nomadic existence – a humbling reminder of the vulnerability amidst the freedom of traditional living.
Besides the raw richness of the coast’s colours, for long stretches of our walk dinosaur footprints stood exposed on reef at low tide, fossilised remains millennia old. Some very large – such as at Walmadany, visible even from cliff tops – and others smaller, telling the story of a time when mud flats prevailed and gigantic creatures walked this very place. They rolled in the mud right where we passed, and the impressions were left undisturbed by chance while the country itself transformed into red cliffs, sea and reef. The prints bore testimony to an ancient natural and cultural heritage, and gave a firm foundation to the case for protecting this place from a gas hub.
My imagination, bounded by what it has been exposed to, could visualise a steel and concrete gas facility at James Price Point easily but strained to imagine dinosaurs walking on earth.
And this is precisely the gap dreaming stories fill in indigenous cultures. Through creation myths and stories, they allow people from the country to look back through time to creation. Walking the songline singing the song cycle keeps the skill of imagining back to creation time alive.
Just like the Goolarabooloo can dream back to creation time walking the Lurujarri. Ironically for we travellers from other places and cultures, we could not share in this dreaming of coastal Kimberley. But we could gain insights into a tried and tested way of imagining country. I could reflect on my own culture through which I can imagine creation stories of my place.
Learning from Frans
The places I walked through were made all the more captivating by the company I had, and no one was more enigmatic than our leader Frans. On the walk Frans often said “the country is hungry to be woken up”. Over campfire on the second night, chipping away at his boomerang, he shared with three women – a volunteer activist from South Africa, an Australian PhD candidate researching people’s experience walking the Lurujarri trail, and me – how he experienced the power of this country. He explained that in places like Walmadany where concrete has not been poured on country and where chemicals have not torn apart the fabric of an interconnected living world, the energy of the landscape can be felt directly and readily.
Through Paddy, Frans saw walking country as the true way to connect with feelings and emotions deeper than the surface. In line with spiritual understanding of his culture, Paddy believed that what people discover about themselves while walking is the same as how they experience that place. The country is both the fertile ground for digging deeper into oneself and an active agent in the delving process.
Walking through new country, there was a lot to absorb. Beyond the blaze of pindan cliffs in the afternoon and the glistening of the dew soaked spinifex in the morning sun, beyond the unbroken chain of yellow dunes mohawked with green vines to our east, and the sapphire blue sea to our west, there were layers of country to decipher with slow walking and quiet listening.
Some of us were seeking the chance to pause every few steps to contemplate all that Emu Man Marella created on his journey, to stare at dinosaur prints and cycad fossils and imagine the ancient spirit walking country. When Frans, walking through country he knew intimately, picked up a brisk pace at the head of the pack, it posed an interesting challenge to our reflective process. Lingering far at the back meant missing out on stories he told – about rocks, trees and dunes we passed. Yet rushing through country, denying the chance to turn a shell over in the palm of my hand, to steal a splash in the water when I saw a dolphin head bob up only metres away from me felt not quite in the spirit of free roaming.
For some, the walk was an escape from time-pressured living. Rushing presented a challenge to the intention of unhinging from the feeling of finiteness. Lying in the warm water of Yellow River on our last day, staring at the shimmering paper barks, I felt a bodily urge to burst into fragments, to meld into the water, the trippy paperbarks and the immaculate blue sky. Through meditation we learn to erode boundaries the mind sets between the self and the external world. While wallowing in the clear waters of Yellow River, I was experiencing what that merging might feel like. Right in the middle of such a sublime thought came Frans’ pack up call, denying the mind a slow transition between states.
Yet despite the frustrating comedy of his power-walking and our struggles on trail, he was our guide and mentor, our storyteller with a self-confessed Dutch accent; the one we kept going to for clarity.
While collecting wood in the thin forest for clap-sticks, he pointed out the two colours of the ebony wood – pale on the outside and dark on the inside. He explained it’s a reminder that “we have to dig a bit deeper, but we settle on the surface”– one of Paddy Roe’s common sayings on walking country.
Frans held the key to questions which occupied our minds, so once back in Broome after the trip some of us sought him out. Within hours of finishing the trail, Frans had crossed over to his other life – we found him, clap-sticks in hand, at his sarong stall at the Friday night market. Speaking to him at the market, far away from the dunes and pindan, the conversation felt without context and puzzling. My feelings at the time of departure from Broome verged on insecurity and vulnerability.
Just by being there, we had heard whale calls at night, woken up to brolgas flying overhead at first light, rolled up swags drenched in dew, hunted for bush honey in the paperbarks, chiselled our clap-sticks, waded in the water, wrote our journals, talked and played music. And yet the bush pearls we collected never got made into necklaces at campfires over stories and singing from women in the family. The few bush tucker names we picked up – Mamajen (red round berries), Marool (native blackberry) and Goolyi (bush pearls) – sat hesitantly on my tongue without repeated listening. The hunger to learn from the people remained.
Reflecting on the play of power at James Price Point over the development of the gas hub – between people holding this place from being drilled and the government and resource companies closing in, I at once understood just how potent a seed Paddy Roe had planted by embarking on his vision, and left feeling my interest to understand aspects of their culture unsatiated.
After the trail Frans sent me an email saying “I tried to remember… I could see you clearly standing in front of me. Nine days – an instant in Bugarregarre (the Dreamtime). And while we can be hungry for stories and the company of traditional women it is this timeless living land, which slowly and subtly enters us…”
What I did leave with an abundance of was an authentic experience of walking country and feelings at moments in places. And true to Frans’ saying, this is how the land slowly and subtly entered me. From these sources I could draw powerful stories and fresh language for place and self.
Connected to country and spirit
Frans concluded his email saying “…and then for a moment we enter Bugarregarre in an awakening dream, and here we can let go”. In my dream I saw myself fully under the spell of the Kimberley’s le-an; the ‘letting go’ captured in the moment of celebration rushing down the blue salt water channel, fears abandoned for freedom. A playful mammal travelling with me, fresh air and sharp sun on my skin.
The dream made me realise that the sensation of le-an is essentially my spirit soaring as high as it can, as well as how much less I live that way. Too short-lived the choiceless and free coursing down the blue waterway, dolphin playing at my side. Nine days walking a songline which bears testimony to eons of creative forces a mere ‘instant in Bugarregarre’.
As I see it now, Lurujarri, true to its spiritual significance, is a field of creative energy. The trail unravelled me, and by continuing to feel the le-an I’ve carried from there, I am constantly connected to this ‘timeless living land’. And this connection is my unique story from coastal Kimberley.
Ruchira is an advocate for a healthy environment in a national environmental organisation. She enjoys learning from other cultures, understanding our connection with nature, and travelling to remote locations. Ruchira has spent most of her life in India but now calls Australia home.
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