Travel Story Back to the roots: The joy of travelling back home

Photo of Bonita Grima

A return to her childhood home of the Pilbara provides a chance for Bonita Grima to learn about the area's Aboriginal heritage.

I grew up in the country of endless summer; where hot red rock and russet earth meet the big blue cool of ocean and sky, where spinifex dot the plains, green and gold fill the gap between giant hills that watch like guardians over the land.

I grew up on sacred ground; where ghost gums line the banks of dry river beds that snake the land, where small animals hide in the shadows of ancient rock and where outback gorges lie waiting to be discovered with their hidden waterfalls and swimming holes.

I grew up in a place where an archipelago of islands transformed into our weekend playground; with their tea-coloured beaches, pristine waters and coral gardens, abundant with marine life. I grew up in the Pilbara.

Even though I’ve been gone for 20 years now, I still feel a connection to that place; to the land that sat at the edge of the mining company town in which we lived, that I always felt silently there in the background, watching over me, like a parent. And every now and then, there’s this feeling I get, like some giant, invisible magnet is pulling me back, a type of magnetism that can’t just be attributed to the area’s iron-rich hills. It’s almost as if I am being summoned by the land itself. And like a dutiful daughter, I answer that call. 

I first met Clinton Walker about a year ago, when I last returned to the Pilbara. Clinton is a descendant of the Ngarluma and Yindjibarndi people who are the traditional owners of the coastal and inland areas of the West Pilbara and he is the owner-operator of Ngurrangga Tours, which coincidentally means Back to Country.

I contacted Clinton because I wanted to know more about the area that I was raised in and that has had such lasting impact on me. Of course, I knew plenty of the non-indigenous and mining background, for which the region is well known, but that has never interested me. What I was seeking was an understanding and a deeper knowledge of the land ... one that can only really be known and imparted by a true custodian of that land.

I met Clinton at the Burrup or Murujuga, an area sacred to the indigenous people of the Pilbara and one that is rich in wildlife and home to the world’s largest living museum of rock art or petroglyphs. This artwork has been dated back to before the ice age ended and is up to 40,000 years old.

The Burrup is an area of outstanding natural beauty. As a child, before a lot of the area became too industrialised, our family would often visit its many little coves to picnic, camp, explore, swim and fish. I was hoping that my experience there with Clinton would offer me greater insight into an area I have so many fond memories of. And I was not disappointed.

As we drove around exploring in Clinton’s four-wheel drive, he told me a bit about why he had decided to start Ngurrangga Tours. Clinton had started out working in various operational roles within the mining industry but after a while felt dissatisfied with the work he was doing and that there was a lack of understanding within the industry about the country.

He changed direction within the industry and began working as a cultural awareness adviser to the mining companies, educating workers and company management about the history and significance of the land from an indigenous perspective.

He quickly discovered that people took a genuine interest in what he was teaching them and so he decided to expand on that teaching in the form of indigenous cultural tours for the public.

“I wanted to get back to my roots and to educate and share my culture with people ... about why it is so important to us. I think it’s also important to keep the knowledge and skills alive and to pass down that knowledge, that was passed to me, to the younger generation.”

Although I thought I was familiar with the area we were exploring, Clinton helped me to see things that I hadn’t known before. He showed me where to find a mob of kangaroos, how to tell which animals had left their tracks in the sand and how to follow them and where to find water and food such as the bush fig. He also pointed out the gathering places of women and the meanings behind some of the symbols and engravings on the amazing rock art hidden within the landscape.

“We believe that the Marrga or creation spirits made this land and everything in it, including us. When the world was soft they raised the sky and the world out of the ocean and gave names to everything. Those spirits are here still and continue to watch and guard over the land that they created.”

I told Clinton of an experience I once had when camping at the Burrup years before. I had wanted to climb a particular large, rocky hill near the beach called Hearson’s Cove, to watch the sunrise. At the time I had felt uneasy, that I was trespassing and being watched and I told him how I felt I was being physically forced or pushed back from climbing the hill. 

When I showed him the hill I was talking about, he then pointed to a group of standing stones at the summit that had been arranged together. I hadn’t noticed them before but once he’d pointed them out they became obvious. He explained they were a cairn, indicating a burial site and that it was a forbidden and sacred area. I felt goose bumps and we turned to leave.

As well as his popular rock art tour, Clinton also conducts a day trip to Millstream-Chichester National Park, bush tucker tours and an overnight camp at Gregory’s Gorge. The Gregory’s Gorge tour is special because it is considered to be an oasis and the “Garden of Eden” or birthplace of Aboriginal culture where the creation spirits handed down their knowledge. On this tour you will be able to explore, relax, swim in the gorge’s deep pools and experience traditional songlines and stories around the campfire at night.

Dadirri, or deep listening as it is known in one Aboriginal language, is a skill that can be learned through the practice of stilling the mind, of tuning in and becoming aware of the natural environment around you. As you do this, it has been said that the very land itself, in turn will tune in and listen to you.

Although this deep connection with country is most powerfully felt and practised by indigenous Australians, I don’t think it is unique and unobtainable to non-indigenous Australians or to anyone who is open to this feeling.

Wanderlust. A term stemming from the German words, wandern (to hike) and lust (desire). I’ve always suffered from wanderlust and have spent a good deal of my life travelling and relocating. I know I will always love to roam. But now I also recognise the joy of returning home. There’s something instinctive about it and you only have to look at migratory birds to realise this. And I don’t think we’re all that different. 

There’s something so important about feeling connected to the place of your birth or origin. I like to think of it as like the resetting of some internal compass. Going back to the starting point can help to give your bearings when you might be feeling a little lost just as looking into the past and being comfortable with that past can help when travelling down future roads.

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