JANE WISHAW travels to a remote part of Australia to see an amazing annual celebration of Aboriginal culture, culinary arts and more.
An outback event with a difference
The Karijini Experience, staged in the heart of Western Australia’s outback Pilbara country, hosts 55 events over six days in April, timed to coincide with Aussie school holidays and the region’s best weather. The openness and generosity of the traditional owners of Karijini National Park, the Banjima people, in sharing their culture, their history and their love of “Country” is what makes this event so special. It affords a tourist like me the unique privilege to engage with daily life, up close and personal, in the park’s beautiful natural environment. It’s an indigenous experience I believe is unsurpassed anywhere in the world.
These remarkable people, who’ve lived here for over 30,000 years, don’t have books recording their travels through the centuries; instead, they have a rich culture of storytelling told through their Dreamtime of song, dance and yarns. Ancient gorges, waterfalls, rock pools, mountain ranges and vast open plains formed over billions of years is what I’ve come to journey through – a spectacular wilderness.
The nearest capital city is Perth, 1,500km away, but it could be a million miles from here. It’s a land of extraordinary extremes and intense beauty, and it grabbed my heart from the minute I arrived.
Leaving a bustling metropolis like Singapore, you’re travelling to an old-world experience; internet connection is limited and you have to plan your day wisely in this remote country.
Arriving at the Pilbara’s Paraburdoo airport, I’m soon setting off in my Budget Prado four-wheel drive for the two-hour drive to Karijini, my bush hat on my head. Lifting my finger just off the wheel, I greet fellow motorists – not that there are many.
Passing signs telling drivers to beware of kangaroos, emus and cattle, I see a majestic wedge-tailed eagle circling in the sky; then my heart leaps as a massive bungarra lizard darts out from nowhere. White cockatoos flock above as the road weaves through the mountain range.
After a quick stop in a mining town called Tom Price, I’m back on track. The sun slips behind Mount Bruce, bathed in crimson. One and a half hours later, I’m entering the park, where vibrant pink Everlasting flowers line the unsealed road.
At Karijini Eco Retreat, General Manager Garry Sullivan greets me with a torch and directions. I drive to my deluxe tent, 29 Snappy Gum Loop. There are no keys; I simply unzip the front door and I’m in, awash with a feeling of freedom. Under my steamy open-air shower, I drink in the moon’s magic.
Dinner is wild-caught barramundi paired with a fine drop of Aussie red; I’m content! Propped up in bed, I see a million stars overhead, and I hear water cascading over nearby Joffrey’s Gorge. A mopoke calls – “hoot, hoot” – and I’m lulled to sleep by the sounds of nature.
The Karijini Experience big tent is located on the park’s airstrip, opposite the must-see Karijini National Park Visitor Centre. The various workshops, performances, tours and social events take place here and in other locations in the area.
Cooking demonstrations by indigenous celebrity chef Mark Olive (aka “The Black Olive”) were a huge hit – the kids especially enjoyed the damper. His “bush tucker” high-tea treats and spicy kangaroo Singapore noodles with native spices were delicious too.
I attempted to play the didgeridoo, and I held a huge wedge-tailed eagle in my hand. Watching kids craft boomerangs and play instruments with a string quartet from the Western Australia Symphony Orchestra brought smiles. Jose, a Kurama women, sang in her native language and conducted a traditional smoking ceremony. My feet were anointed with red earth and sacred oils, and I made an Aboriginal protection charm with paperbark and native plants; both personal firsts. My hands-on energy “activation” and clairvoyant reading by Sistars Dreaming was enlightening.
Banjima elder Maitland Parker led a morning cultural bush walk, together with his brother Trevor, and Banjima Rangers Allan and Heidi. Pointing out a cork tree, he explained how the dark bark is used to protect the skin; there were edible plants too, including mustard bush leaf used to brew healing tea. Sitting amidst golden spinifex listening to stories about tribal law, I looked at the bush through different eyes.
Gurama craftsman Wayne Stevens demonstrated making Yandi bowls, boomerangs, shields and dance sticks used in corroboree. He also hosts rockart tours. We drove along a bumpy, all-but-hidden track with Wayne, before stopping to walk through high grasses and streams. Directing my gaze upward, he pointed to a drawing of a lizard; “That fella extinct,” he said; then, pointing to another, “He still lives”. Seeing ancient artistic representations of human figures, turtles and symbols signifying springwater was mind blowing.
I was also starstruck by an evening of solar astronomy and nightscape photography. The sky here is unbelievably clear, with no manmade light to interfere. As I peered through massive telescopes, The Milky Way and The Southern Cross appeared so near. Kids lay on their backs nearby, squealing at the blasts of shooting stars.
Sitting on sun- warmed stone in a natural amphitheatre of cliffs, bushland and running streams was a breathtaking position to take in Opera in the Gorge, and the unforgettably pure voices of internationally acclaimed indigenous performers.
Top T tucker
One of the real highlight nights came courtesy of Fervor, a gastronomic pop-up dining experience featuring native Australian cuisine, and led by Executive Chef Paul “Yoda” Iskov. Dinner was served on a whiteclothed table adorned by candlelight, with spinifex grass shaping our bush dining room and a galaxy of stars as our ceiling.
Maître d’ Steph Pronk prepared an arrival G&T (perfect!) as I located my place on the table set for 30. Native lemongrass and wattle seed foraged by Banjima Rangers were incorporated into our lavish eight-canape, 10-course feast. Native limes, bush tomato and river mint featured too, with tantalising tastes of mullet, emu and crocodile. My hero dish was the kangaroo, wattle seed, sandpaper fig and sandalwood-nut miso. Saltbush fudge with riberry nougat proved a wonderfully sweet finish for a Michelin Star-quality meal.
I was lucky to meet professional canyon guide Sven Borg, and jumped at the chance of a mid-morning tour to Hancock Gorge. Once there, I swam fully clothed,
boots and all, down the narrow gorge and through the natural amphitheatre to a feature known as Spider Walk.
We also hiked up and over to Weano Gorge, before descending into more mirrored pools shrouded by white gums, paperbarks and fig trees. Back up at the top, at Oxer Lookout, we saw banded rock formations glowing in the setting sun. Looking down to the gorge, I was struck by a profound sense of achievement; I had sat all the way down there, closer to the earth’s core.
Another dream come true was floating in the billabong oasis of Fern Pool under a brilliant blue sky, and suddenly seeing the iridescent flash a kingfisher’s wings. Fruit bats chattered and an olive python hung out close by, hopeful of a feed. I swam across the cool freshwater pool, climbed under a ledge and let cascading water fall over my head. Children played, natural, fresh and free.
On closing night, Maitland Parker called out to the audience, “Tharn ar ru”, and spirited the crowd to call back to him with the same greeting, which we did. It means “welcome”, “hello” and “g’day” in the Banjima language. Tears tumbled down my cheeks when Banjima elder Alec Tucker sang with guitar in hand, and he was followed by a stellar line-up of Aboriginal talent; Archie Roach, Mark Aitken, Seth Lowe, Gina Williams and Guy Ghouse, amongst others.
With dusty pink clouds of pindan sand settling on the natural stage, the evening’s corroboree came to a close. Maitland rose and, with arms open wide, invited the crowd to join the dance. Together, we mimicked emus and kangaroos, moving to the same song under the moon.
Then I heard Maitland’s words to me, again in Banjima: “We never say goodbye; we say, ‘Until we see each other again’.”
A truly remarkable journey, and I can’t wait to hear more of Karijini’s song.