Travel Story Aboriginal culture of the cape

Photo of Ben O'Shea

A new indigenous tour in the South West reveals an ancient tradition of sustainable living.

Long before European explorers saw Western Australia, the Wadandi people walked its coast in harmony with the six Noongar seasons.

As of this week, visitors to the Cape Naturaliste region in the South West will be able to follow in their footsteps, with the launch of Cape Cultural Tours.

The word “Wadandi” means “forest people by the sea”, a literal description of a saltwater people, who roamed a territory that ranged from the Blackwood River in the south, inside the Darling Scarp, to the Preston River in what is now Bunbury.

For 50,000 years, the Wadandi followed the rugged coastline during the warmer months, catching salmon, blue groper and abalone, before moving inland when the weather cooled to take advantage of rivers and lakes that were swollen with seasonal rains.

As they moved across their “boodja”, or country, the Wadandi farmed native plants using fire and thousands of years of learning as tools, and hunted only the animals needed to feed their families. 

To the first white settlers, it looked a simple existence but scientists are now realising the Wadandi and other Noongar peoples employed a highly sophisticated system of land management that could teach us a few things about sustainable living.

Wadandi man Josh Whiteland has been passing this knowledge to tourists and school groups in the South West for 15 years; the last seven of those via his cultural tour company Koomal Dreaming.

Koomal is his traditional name, and means brushtail possum, the animal totem giving to him by the Wadandi elders.

And if sharing the oral history of his people is Josh’s job, he is guilty of taking work home with him — the lessons offered to tourists are also given to his three young sons, something Josh sees as critical to the survival of his culture.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine anyone being more qualified at their chosen profession — Koomal Dreaming has won gold medals in the Indigenous category of the Western Australian Tourism Awards three years running and this year will be inducted into the Tourism Hall of Fame.

But Josh’s impressive resume pales into insignificance when you consider his ultimate qualification — his DNA is so similar to that of his ancient ancestors, even after 50,000 years, that archaeologists working in the area keep their distance in case he inadvertently contaminates their digs.

While Koomal Dreaming operates largely in and around the popular Ngilgi Cave near Yallingup, Josh’s new enterprise, Cape Cultural Tours, will operate around Cape Naturaliste and offer visitors a chance to walk the existing trails in the area as the Wadandi have for millennia.

“You’ll hear all the traditional stories of the place, you’ll see the migrating humpbacks, the schools of fish, the dolphins, the sharks; you’ll see the birds flying overhead, you’ll experience the foraged foods and the seasonal plants, animal habitat, traditional music and tool-making sessions,” Josh explains.

In the shadow of the Cape Naturaliste Lighthouse — itself a major tourism draw — the tours start and end at the Meeting Place, which provides shade a fire pit and table seating for native food experiences. From there, you walk the trails that snake around the cape, stopping regularly to learn about the plants that must have constituted a veritable supermarket for the Wadandi.

Josh speaks of sea celery and salt bush; the antiseptic qualities of the hibbertia or the peppermint tree, only stopping to point out a humpback whale breaching in the waters off the cape. By the Noongar calendar, it is currently Kambarang, the season of birth, and Josh is looking forward to many plants coming into fruit.

The Wadandi believed their spirits would travel through the caves that form a natural tunnel network in the limestone rock of the region, out to the horizon, where the sea meets the sky, and back to the Dreaming.

In sharing and celebrating the knowledge of his people, Josh is including us in the Dreaming of Wadandi boodja. “Every time you go to a sacred place, every time you eat traditional food, every time you connect to country, Aboriginal culture becomes a part of who you are.”

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Cape Cultural Tours offers a variety of tours that range from 30 minutes to three hours. The tours include guided bushwalks, the longest of which is from Sugarloaf Rock to Cape Naturaliste, and have optional native food experiences. 

Bookings essential, go to capeculturaltours.com.au or phone 0412 415 355.

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