ON THE PHAN­TOM TRAIL

Tony Per­rot­tet ven­tures into the Kim­ber­ley in pur­suit of the leg­end of out­law Jandamarra

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Australia Travel -

IT is high noon at Wind­jana Gorge, deep in the Kim­ber­ley, when a bat­tered ve­hi­cle pulls up in a cloud of dust and a pair of lanky legs un­winds from the door. Dil­lon An­drews, a Bunuba Abo­rig­i­nal guide, is decked out in a bright orange shirt, blue jeans and crisp white cow­boy hat. At 50, he still looks ev­ery inch the cat­tle stock­man he has been for most of his life. Pil­ing out be­hind him are three teenagers wear­ing ny­lon foot­ball out­fits; they are stu­dents from An­drews’s clan.

‘‘ This mob’s here to help,’’ An­drews ex­plains, as he sets Amos, Ryzack and Richelle to boil some billy tea and re­strains them from look­ing for bush tucker. ‘‘ I went hunt­ing and gath­er­ing back at the su­per­mar­ket in Fitzroy,’’ he laughs, hold­ing up ham and chicken.

We take a seat in the shade and look out at Wind­jana’s jagged lime­stone walls, rut­ted with chasms and crowned with nat­u­ral spires. This is go­ing to be stop one in our three-day grand tour of the his­toric Kim­ber­ley, a now serene site that in 1894 be­came no­to­ri­ous across the Bri­tish Em­pire as the set­ting for a deadly shootout. In the late 19th cen­tury, this cor­ner of the Kim­ber­ley had turned into the colo­nial wild west, with a bloody fron­tier rag­ing be­tween pi­o­neer white set­tlers and the re­gion’s Abo­rig­ines. The most con­tro­ver­sial fig­ure to emerge from the con­flict was Bunuba gun­man Jandamarra, known to whites by the nick­name Pi­geon. This mys­te­ri­ous, ro­man­tic fig­ure led a cam­paign of guerilla re­sis­tance against cat­tle ranch­ers, ap­pear­ing from the bush like a phan­tom, then dis­solv­ing with­out trace.

Th­ese days, of course, Jandamarra is viewed dif­fer­ently. The for­mer out­law is seen as a black Ned Kelly who strug­gled to save his home­land from in­va­sion. The re­mote Kim­ber­ley sites where he hid and fought have even been iden­ti­fied by the lo­cal tourism board on a self-guided Pi­geon Her­itage Trail. But I hope to dig a lit­tle deeper. And who bet­ter to re­count Jandamarra’s story and guide me camp­ing on his for­mer stomp­ing grounds for a spell than a Bunuba guide?

A half-hour later I am fol­low­ing An­drews and his crew into the silent gorge, where placid green wa­ters are shaded by high cliffs. The rocks by the path bris­tle with the fos­sils of seashells and crus­taceans, relics from when it was part of a pre­his­toric coral reef. We cross an ex­panse of burn­ing sand to where a dozen croc­o­diles are sun­ning them­selves in the river. With a the­atri­cal flour­ish, he picks up two peb­bles and in­structs me to place one in my left armpit. He chants a few words in Bunuba, then we toss our peb­bles into the wa­ter. ‘‘ That was a mes­sage to the spir­its,’’ he says. ‘‘ Just told them, here, I’m bring­ing a friend, we don’t mean any dis­tur­bance.’’

An­drews points at the pock-marked cliffs above us. The Bunuba once buried their an­ces­tors, shrouded in bark, in the nat­u­ral cat­a­combs of this gorge. And the big­gest cave, high in the lime­stone wall, has been one of Jandamarra’s most sto­ried hide­outs. An­drews’s el­ders have even found rusted guns and car­tridges up there. ‘‘ That’s where he made his stand,’’ he tells me, squint­ing up at the light. IF Ser­gio Leone had been Aus­tralian, we’d have a string of ex­is­ten­tial west­erns in­spired by Jandamarra. But his bleak story has only re­cently be­come well­known out­side the Kim­ber­ley. Ion Idriess wrote a novel based on his life in the 1950s, but the story was more ac­cu­rately re­vealed in the ’ 90s by Howard Ped­er­son in his book (with Banjo Woorun­murra), Jandamarra and the Bunuba Re­sis­tance . The fu­ture out­law had been about six in 1879, when the first ex­plor­ers ap­peared like sun­burned ghosts on Bunuba land. He grew up on the fringes of the pi­o­neer camps, caught (like Tom Ke­neally’s fic­tional Jim­mie Black­smith) be­tween two worlds. White ranch­ers put him on trial for spear­ing cat­tle for food. To avoid prison, Jandamarra agreed to work as a tracker for the out­back po­lice. But vi­o­lent con­flicts with the Bunuba were es­ca­lat­ing in the Kim­ber­ley and Jandamarra soon found him­self help­ing troop­ers hunt Abo­rig­i­nal rene­gades in the bush.

In late 1894, the in­evitable hap­pened, and Jandamarra was in­volved in the cap­ture of his blood rel­a­tives. That night, as he guarded the pris­on­ers in their neck chains at the iso­lated Lil­limooloora po­lice sta­tion, his Bunuba rel­a­tives pleaded with him to re­spect his sa­cred tribal ties. Alone in the dark­ness, he made the de­ci­sion to shoot the lone white trooper dead in his sleep and set his rel­a­tives free. Seiz­ing a cache of Winch­ester ri­fles, Jandamarra and his makeshift gang then at­tacked some cat­tle drovers who were on Bunuba land and hid out in the caves above Wind­jana Gorge, await­ing reprisals.

As we ex­plore the gorge, An­drews re­counts how a posse of white troop­ers fi­nally found the hide­out. A tense, eighthour shoot-out fol­lowed, shat­ter­ing Wind­jana’s mil­len­nial si­lence. Jandamarra was hit three times and pre­sumed dead. But he was, Abo­rig­ines said, jal­ng­gan­guru , with mag­i­cal pow­ers to fly like a bird and dis­ap­pear like a ghost. Three months later, Jandamarra reemerged to make a string of dar­ing raids, taunt­ing the mounted po­lice pa­trols sent to hunt him down. For the next three years he played a deadly cat and mouse game, paralysing white set­tle­ment. I CAN ap­pre­ci­ate why the troop­ers never stood a chance. From Wind­jana Gorge, An­drews and I take a turn-off into Fair­field sta­tion, an enor­mous cat­tle ranch on long-term lease by the Bunuba. We force the ve­hi­cles up and down raw gul­lies, across dry rock-beds and through soft ex­panses of sand. This was Jandamarra’s home turf and I feel com­pletely lost. Fi­nally, af­ter clam­ber­ing through fields of sharp bushes with lizards dart­ing out of our way, An­drews points to a squat es­carp­ment: it’s his clan’s gallery of rock art. On hands and knees, I shuf­fle into the dark­ness of the first stone over­hang and am con­fronted by a Wand­jina spirit, with his ochre halo. Next comes a menagerie of kan­ga­roos and din­goes de­picted with X-ray pre­ci­sion. Fi­nally I slide on my back into the heart of the rock, to gaze on a Euro­pean sail­ing ship, com­plete with mast and spi­dery rig­ging. FOR the next two days, An­drews shows me around a land­scape un­al­tered since Jandamarra was a boy. One steam­ing af­ter­noon, we hike to a wa­ter­hole backed by cliffs that burn orange in the sun­light. I cool off with Amos, Ryzack and Richelle by swim­ming amid the vines. When we emerge, bar­be­cued bream has been cer­e­mo­ni­ously laid out on a bed of fresh eu­ca­lyp­tus fronds, ready to be de­voured with our fin­gers.

But while the Bunuba world is suf­fused with heat and light, its spir­i­tual fo­cus lies be­neath the earth, in a sepul­chral cave called Tun­nel Creek. This sa­cred spot, where the bod­ies of the Bunuba dead were once laid to rest in bark shrouds, was also cho­sen by Jandamarra as his long-term hide­out.

Ap­proach­ing the site, which lies out­side Fair­field sta­tion, An­drews seems melan­choly. Even the land takes on a mourn­ful air: the bush for kilo­me­tres around has been scorched by fires and eu­ca­lyp­tus trees are still in flame on ei­ther side of the trail to the en­trance; black birds cir­cle in the smoke above. Af­ter squeez­ing past gi­ant boul­ders into the cave, our torches re­veal hun­dreds of bats hang­ing from the high ceil­ing like sin­is­ter fruit, some flit­ting through the sta­lac­tites with sud­den high-pitched shrieks. The only way for­ward is to wade along an un­der­ground river, which soon be­comes waist deep.

I shine my torch into the icy black wa­ter, spot­ting translu­cent shrimp prowl- ing the sand floor and a white eel slith­er­ing in the shal­lows by my feet. ‘‘ This is where Jandamarra was healed by bush medicine and black magic,’’ An­drews whis­pers. ‘‘ You can feel the spir­its here.’’ This hide­out served Jandamarra well; once, troop­ers even blocked off both ends of the tun­nel, un­aware of a third exit. But his luck ran out in March 1897, when po­lice brought in a fa­mous black bush­man named Micki, who helped them hunt down Jandamarra’s gang one by one. Hunted to ex­haus­tion and badly wounded, the neme­sis of the Kim­ber­ley, barely 24, was cor­nered on a bluff near Tun­nel Creek, and gunned down. To prove Jandamarra was dead, the po­lice hacked off his head, which was later dis­played on the bar of a pub in Derby as set­tlers drank in cel­e­bra­tion. The skull was then sent to Lon­don as a sou­venir.

Wad­ing through the dark wa­ter with An­drews, it feels as if th­ese gothic scenes all hap­pened yes­ter­day. And the reper­cus­sions of those days are still fresh, Clam­ber­ing out of the cave, An­drews says he wor­ries the Bunuba peo­ple have too lit­tle say in how sites such as this, which are on na­tional park land, are man­aged.

He’d like to see white Kim­ber­ley guides trained in Bunuba cul­ture and a per­cent­age of the park en­trance fees go to the Bunuba peo­ple for health and ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams. ‘‘ It’s time to give some­thing back,’’ he shrugs.

Check­list

Dil­lon An­drews has op­er­ated Bun­goolee Tours out of Fitzroy Cross­ing since 1997; he of­fers two and three-day trips to sites re­lated to the Jandamarra story, camp­ing on private Abo­rig­i­nal land near the re­mote area com­mu­nity of Biridu on Leopold Downs sta­tion. The two-day es­corted ex­cur­sion is or­gan­ised through the Fitzroy River Lodge and leaves from Fitzroy Cross­ing; $485 an adult, in­clud­ing meals and camp­ing gear. For a three-day trip, you need a four-wheeldrive, which can be hired in Broome, Derby or Fitzroy Cross­ing; rates vary. More: Di­verse Travel Aus­tralia, (08) 8303 3422; www.abo­rig­i­nalaus­trali­a­travel.com; www.kim­ber­ley­ho­tels.com.au. Or do the self-guided Pi­geon Her­itage Trail with a brochure from the Derby tourism of­fice. Wind­jana Gorge and Tun­nel Creek are na­tional park­land and can be vis­ited in­de­pen­dently. www.der­by­tourism.com.au trails.her­itage.wa.gov.au

Pic­tures: Tony Per­rot­tet

Wild west: Clock­wise from left, rugged Wind­jana Gorge, site of a no­to­ri­ous 19th-cen­tury shoot-out; the ru­ined prison where Jandamarra killed a trooper; grave of William Richard­son, killed by blacks’; Brook­ing Gorge on Bunuba land; Abo­rig­i­nal guide Dil­lon An­drews

Sto­ry­teller: Dil­lon An­drews of Bun­goolee Tours in a rock art cave

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