ON THE PHANTOM TRAIL
Tony Perrottet ventures into the Kimberley in pursuit of the legend of outlaw Jandamarra
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.
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
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